Virtually everyone has diarrhea at some point or another: Loose, watery stools are part of a standard immune system response to common infections as well as food poisoning; they’re also a frequent side effect of antibiotics and various gastrointestinal (GI) troubles.
Most of the time, diarrhea is a short-term (acute) problem that lasts a few days and subsides without medical care. Sometimes, however, liquid bowel movements persist longer — or become an ongoing (chronic) occurrence — signaling the possibility of a more serious issue.
If you’re dealing with persistent, unexplained diarrhea, board-certified gastroenterologist Ilyas Memon, MD, and our expert team at Texas Digestive Disease Consultants can help. Read on as Dr. Memon explores common causes and effective treatments for loose stools.
Normal bowel movements are about 75% water and 25% protein, fat, mucus, and dietary fiber. As solid waste products move through your upper GI tract, they collect digestive fluids and electrolytes. Because your lower GI tract absorbs excess digestive fluids before waste reaches your colon, your exiting stool is firm and solid.
With diarrhea, the digestive process is accelerated or intensified. It may occur when:
Diarrhea is any bowel movement that’s more liquid than normal, occurs more often than normal, or expels a much higher stool volume than usual. Specifically, “having diarrhea” means passing loose, watery stools three or more times in one day.
Diarrhea can be caused by various underlying problems, each of which is classified as acute or chronic based on its duration. Let’s take a closer look:
Acute diarrhea typically lasts one or two days. Common causes include:
Contracted through contaminated foods, Salmonella and E. coli are two of the most frequent bacterial infections associated with severe loose stools that resolve within a few days.
Rotavirus, norovirus, and viral gastroenteritis (the stomach flu) are common viral infections that cause acute diarrhea.
Contact with parasites such as Giardia lamblia or Cryptosporidium, which are found in contaminated drinking water, food, and recreational water, can also cause runny bowel movements for a few days.
When acute diarrhea lasts for two or three weeks before it resolves, it’s called persistent diarrhea. Persistent diarrhea is usually a sign of a lingering infection.
Chronic diarrhea persists for four weeks or longer. Whether it’s continuous or comes and goes over time, chronic diarrhea is more likely to be caused by:
Several medications can cause chronic diarrhea with long-term use, including certain acid reflux medications and antidepressants, many antibiotics, and chemotherapy drugs.
Ongoing loose stools are often a problem for people with undiagnosed food intolerances, such as lactose (milk sugar) or fructose (fruit sugar) intolerance. Mild, undiagnosed allergies to soy, eggs, cereal grains, and seafood can also trigger chronic diarrhea.
Long-standing diarrhea can also be a warning sign of a functional bowel disorder like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or a symptom of serious inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
While acute diarrhea typically resolves on its own without medical intervention, it’s important to drink plenty of fluids for the duration of the episode to prevent dehydration. Otherwise, you can take over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medication for quick relief. It’s also helpful to:
The BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) can be especially helpful during a bout of acute diarrhea. If loose stools last longer than a few days — especially if they’re bloody or accompanied by fever — give us a call right away.
Diarrhea that persists or becomes chronic always requires a medical evaluation. Even if you avoid dehydration, long-lasting diarrhea can lead to malabsorption, a condition in which your small intestine no longer absorbs nutrients from your food.
Treatment for persistent or chronic diarrhea depends entirely on its underlying cause. After a comprehensive evaluation, Dr. Memon may recommend:
If you have persistent or chronic diarrhea, don’t delay: Call or click online to schedule a visit at Texas Digestive Disease Consultants in The Woodlands, Magnolia, and Willis, Texas, today.