Diarrhea is best described as the too frequent and often urgent passage of loose or watery stools, but there is no perfect definition of the disorder.
There are many causes, and diarrhea may be a mild nuisance or a disabling dysfunction with life-threatening consequences. Therefore, if you have anything more than mild, short-term diarrhea, you should consult a physician to obtain a diagnosis and specific treatment. If you have blood in the stool, signs of dehydration, weight loss, or fever such a consultation is urgent.
Acute diarrhea is usually short lived. In the case of viral infection, it must run its course. Antibiotics may shorten the duration of some parasitic and bacterial infections. Sometimes diagnosis is impossible or delayed, there is persistent diarrhea during or despite specific treatment, or intermittent diarrhea is part of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
The symptom of diarrhea can usually be managed until the underlying disease is brought under control. Sometimes, diarrhea persists despite everyone’s best efforts.
People often underestimate the dehydrating effect of diarrhea, especially if it results from an acute infection in a hot climate. Dehydration may be less noticed in the elderly who often fail to experience appropriate thirst.
Fluid losses must be replaced. For mild episodes, drinking extra water may suffice. But where fluid losses are great, sodium and potassium may also be lost, so the glucose/saline solution recommended by the World Health Organization may be restorative. Your pharmacy will have a commercial version of this solution known as oral replacement therapy (ORT).
ORT is especially important for young children and the elderly. Severe cases may require fluids administered intravenously. For mild cases, soups and juices may suffice. For some acute diarrheal illnesses, hydration is all that is required.
Signs of Dehydration
General signs of dehydration include:
- less frequent urination
- dry skin
- dark colored urine
Signs of dehydration in children include:
- dry mouth and tongue
- no tears when crying
- no wet diapers for 3 hours or more
- sunken abdomen, eyes, or cheeks
- high fever
- listlessness or irritability
- skin that does not flatten when pinched and released
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