Louise Chang, MD
Diarrhea is inconvenient, unpleasant, and happens to nearly everyone. Of all reported illnesses in the U.S., diarrhea is the second most common. The average adult has diarrhea four times a year. American children typically have seven to 15 cases of diarrhea by the time they reach age five.
Everyday things such as food, medication, or stress can cause diarrhea. However, diarrhea sometimes may signal an underlying medical condition. If diarrhea keeps you running for the toilet, read on to learn about some common triggers and how you can cope.
Bacteria are part of everyday life, and normally bacteria and humans live together peacefully. However, some bacteria can wreak havoc on your digestive well-being. These tiny bugs find fertile breeding ground in raw meats, eggs, shellfish, and unpasteurized milk.
Cases of food contamination causing diarrhea are rare in the U.S., says Alexander Rapisarda, MD, a specialist in gastroenterology and hepatology at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in East Brunswick, N.J. He tells WebMD, “The most common food-related cases of diarrhea come from food that was not refrigerated well enough or went bad before the patient ate it.”
To reduce your risk of bacteria-related diarrhea, cook meat, poultry, and eggs completely. Wash your hands, utensils, and surfaces. Refrigerate leftovers quickly, don’t leave them at room temperature longer than necessary.
When deciding where to dine out, look for health department ratings online or posted in the restaurant. These ratings indicate the restaurant kitchen’s levels of cleanliness and food safety.
Some viral infections can lead to diarrhea and vomiting. These viral strains are highly contagious, traveling easily from unwashed hand to unwashed hand. Shared drinks, utensils, and contaminated food also provide passage into your unsuspecting stomach. People who no longer have symptoms or never exhibited symptoms in the first place can sometimes spread these viruses.
Just like with bacteria, hand washing, clean kitchens, and common sense go a long way to keep viruses under wraps. If you or someone you know has diarrhea, do not eat or drink from the same containers. You might never know for sure if a bacteria or virus caused your diarrhea — the symptoms and incubation periods are often the same. In either case, the diarrhea and stomach upset usually work their way out of your system within two to three days.
Delhi Belly and Montezuma’s Revenge are two nicknames for an experience shared by many unhappy travelers. Depending on the country, between 30% and 70% of travelers suffer a bout of diarrhea and vomiting, courtesy of contaminated local foods or water. If you travel to a developing country, avoid raw, unpeeled produce and water from the faucet. Eat only cooked foods prepared in a clean kitchen and stick with bottled water, even to brush your teeth. Typically, traveler’s diarrhea works its way out of your system within 12 hours.
Sometimes diarrhea does not go away of its own accord. Chronic diarrhea has many possible causes, including some medications or intolerance to certain foods. Persistent and repeated bouts of diarrhea can also be a sign of a serious underlying condition.
1. Diarrhea caused by medication
Sometimes good medicines lead to bad diarrhea. “As more patients are treated with antibiotics, we see more cases of Clostridium difficile colitis,” Rapisarda tells WebMD. While going after bad bacteria, antibiotics can also kill good bacteria that protect your intestines. “Ironically, antibiotics to treat one type of infection can make a patient more vulnerable to this other type of infection.”
Blood pressure medications, cancer drugs, and antacids can also trigger diarrhea. If you take any of these medications and experience frequent or ongoing diarrhea, let your doctor know.
2. Diarrhea caused by food intolerance
Diarrhea may be the result if your body has trouble digesting certain foods. Diarrhea-inducing fare includes dairy products and artificial sweeteners. The undigested food causes nausea, diarrhea, cramping, and gas, normally within 30 minutes to two hours of entering your system.
Lactose intolerance affects 30 million to 50 million Americans, most of whom are black, Hispanic, American Indian, or Asian American. The impact of lactose intolerance varies. Some people can drink small amounts of milk in tea or coffee without stomach upset. Some can eat cheese or yogurt, which have less lactose than milk. Note the type and amount of dairy products you eat and their effect. You can also talk to your doctor about dietary supplements that may improve your digestion of dairy products.
3. Diarrhea caused by chronic conditions
Diarrhea that doesn’t go away might be letting you know you have an untreated medical condition. If diarrhea lasts longer than three days, ask your doctor of you might have any of these diarrhea-causing conditions:
Many things can cause diarrhea, from environmental factors to chronic conditions. Pay attention to your symptoms and be sure to keep yourself hydrated and nourished until the diarrhea clears up. If the problem continues longer than three days, seek medical attention.
SOURCES:National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: “Digestive Diseases: Diarrhea.”CDC: “Foodborne Illness.”Alexander Rapisarda, MD; specialist in gastroenterology and hepatology, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, East Brunswick, N.J.CDC: “Traveler’s Diarrhea.”National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: “Viral Gastroenteritis.”FDA: “Problem Digesting Dairy Products?”Mayo Clinic: “Diarrhea.”UPMC Health A to Z: “Diarrhea.”MedlinePlus: “Electrolytes.”The American College of Gastroenterology: “Diarrheal Diseases.”Dziwe, N. Emergency Medicine News, January 2004; vol 26: p 27.
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