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Acute Diarrhea

What is acute diarrhea?

Acute diarrhea starts quickly and lasts a short time, usually 1 to 3 days. It can last up to 2 weeks. You may have crampy pain, or feel like you are passing water. You may not be able to control your diarrhea. Acute diarrhea usually stops on its own.

What causes acute diarrhea?

Anyone can get acute diarrhea. Ask your healthcare provider about these and other causes:

  • Bacteria, such as E coli or salmonella

  • Viruses, such as rotavirus and hepatitis

  • Food allergies, such as with lactose products (milk or cheese) or soy protein

  • Contaminated food, such as meat that is undercooked

  • Contaminated water, such as water from a stream

  • Medical conditions, such as diabetes, thyroid problems, or intestinal problems

  • Medical treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation

  • Medicines, such as laxatives, antacids, or antibiotics

What other signs and symptoms may happen with acute diarrhea?

  • Stomach pain, or a fever higher than 103°F with chills

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Headache, or muscle pain in your abdomen

  • Thirst, or decreased urination and tears

  • Dry skin or sunken eyes

  • Fast, pounding heartbeat, or weight loss that you cannot explain

What increases my risk for acute diarrhea?

  • You do not wash your hands often, or each time you use the bathroom.

  • You drink contaminated water, especially when you travel.

  • Your immune system is weak and cannot fight off infection.

  • Your child attends school or daycare, where germs spread easily.

What may my healthcare provider ask when I have acute diarrhea?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your diarrhea, such as what it looks like and when it started. He may ask if you have any blood or mucus in your diarrhea. He will ask what you have eaten recently and if you have traveled. He will ask what medicines you use or if you have been around anyone who is sick. Tell your healthcare provider if you have cramps in your abdomen. Your healthcare provider may check you for signs and symptoms of dehydration (loss of body fluids).

How can I manage my acute diarrhea?

The following may be used in adults or children:

  • Drink liquids: Drink clear liquids, such as water or clear juices. You will need to drink more liquids than usual. Ask your healthcare provider how much liquid you should drink each day.

  • Drink oral rehydration solution: Oral rehydration solution (ORS) has the right amounts of water, salts, and sugar that you need to replace lost body fluids. Ask what kind of ORS you or your child should use, how much to drink, and where to get it.

  • Eat bland foods: Eat bland foods, such as bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, as soon as you can. Avoid fatty, sugary, or greasy foods. They may worsen your diarrhea. You may add chicken, fish, potatoes, or bread as your bowel movements harden. Ask your healthcare provider for more information on what food to eat and the best food to give your child.

How is acute diarrhea treated?

The following medicines are for adults only:

  • Diarrhea medicine: This is over-the-counter medicine that helps slow or stop your diarrhea.

  • Antibiotics: You may need this medicine if your diarrhea is caused by bacteria.

What are the risks of acute diarrhea?

  • You may become dehydrated. This is when you lose a lot of body fluid. Dehydration can be life-threatening, especially in children and older adults. You may go into shock if you lose too much fluid. Some diarrhea medicines can turn your tongue or bowel movements black. Diarrhea may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as appendicitis or inflammatory bowel disease. Rarely, you may get sepsis when the bacteria spread inside your body. Sepsis is a life-threatening blood infection caused by bacteria that enter your blood stream.

  • You may develop anemia (lack of red blood cells) if you have blood in your diarrhea. It can be life-threatening. Diarrhea can be dangerous for people with immune system illnesses, such as HIV. This is because your immune system cannot fight infection and you can become very sick. Ask your healthcare provider for more information about the risks of acute diarrhea.

How can acute diarrhea be prevented?

  • Wash your hands: Wash your hands often, such as each time you use the bathroom or touch anything that is not clean. Wash your hands before you cook or touch food of any kind. Use waterless hand gel when you are in a place where you cannot wash your hands.

  • Avoid contaminated water: Do not drink tap water or eat ice cubes in places with contaminated water. Do not swallow water in showers or when you brush your teeth in these places. Drink bottled water or water that has been cleaned through a filter.

  • Avoid contaminated food: Cook food thoroughly.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • You have abdominal pain and a fever higher than 103°F.

  • You have trouble eating and drinking because of vomiting.

  • You are thirsty or have a dry mouth.

  • You urinate less than usual.

  • You feel tired, restless, or irritated.

  • Your eyes look slightly sunken, or they produce few tears when you cry.

When should I seek immediate help?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You are unable to drink any liquids.

  • Your eyes look deeply sunken, or you have no tears when you cry. You are exhausted or depressed and not urinating. Your infant has a sunken soft spot on his head. These are all serious signs of dehydration.

  • Your heart is pounding, or you cannot feel your pulse.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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