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Diarrhea - Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Diarrhea (or diarrhoea) is a gastrointestinal disorder that is characterized by loose or watery stools in abnormally high amount or frequency occurring several times a day. Diarrhea may be a single episode, disappearing in less than two weeks, in which case it is called acute diarrhea, or chronic, when symptoms last for more than a month. Diarrhea is not a disease but a symptom of another disease and can occur in many diseases. Depending on whether it acute or chronic, the causes are different. Acute infectious are the most common cause of diarrhea. Of these, there is acute viral gastroenteritis, bacterial diarrhea caused by Salmonella, diarrhea caused by medications (including antibiotics) and food poisoning. As for chronic diarrhea, it can be cause by drug use, parasitic infections, chronic bowel disease such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, hyperthyroidism, or cancers, in particular those involving the colon.


Symptoms of diarrhea include loose or watery stools in abnormally high amounts, or unusually frequent occurrence. The single criterion is used to define the presence of this symptom, but does not evoke the cause of this disorder. These are other clinical signs and contexts that will guide the caregiver to a suspected cause.


Making the diagnosis of a symptom is not difficult. It is diagnosing the cause of this symptom that is more complicated. The doctor will make a precise examination searching for:
  • old or progressive diseases;
  • the duration of diarrhea and the context of occurrence;
  • the appearance and frequency of stool;
  • drugs usually taken and those that were recently introduced or withdrawn;
  • recent travel and living conditions;
  • foods recently consumed;
  • the presence of a near identical symptom;
  • other associated symptoms such as fever, abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting ...

If the diagnosis is not clear at the end of this examination, additional tests directed by the suspected causes will be prescribed:
  • blood tests;
  • analysis of a stool sample to search for bacteria and parasites;
  • X-ray of the abdomen;
  • rarely, and in the case of persistent symptoms, an endoscopic examination of the gastrointestinal tract, a colonoscopy or an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy.


In most cases, diarrhea is fine only when it is related to an infection such as gastroenteritis. Once the cause is identified, it should be treated. It may be with antibiotics for bacterial infections, anti-parasitic treatment for parasitic disease, stopping a suspected drug perceived as cause, or treating a condition in which diarrhea is a symptom, such as chronic inflammatory bowel disease or cancer. A suitable diet is recommended with adequate hydration to prevent dehydration and food intake of the likes of rice. In some cases, symptoms can be reduced by using molecules that slow the movement of bowels or that decrease intestinal secretion.


Prevention is especially pertinent in the case of infectious diarrhea, and for this you must:
  • wash your hands before and after every meal and even several times a day in case of an epidemic;
  • pay special attention to the preservation of food and expiration dates;
  • when traveling abroad, particularly in Asia, South America or Africa, it is particularly advised consume only bottled water, even for brushing your teeth, to avoid food that was previously washed with well water, to eat only peeled fruits and vegetables and well-cooked meats. You should plan your trip in advance and learn about the necessary vaccinations and preventive actions;
  • isolation measures are sometimes necessary in certain types of infections.

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