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Chronic Diarrhea

What is chronic diarrhea?

Diarrhea is chronic when it occurs 3 or more times a day for more than 4 weeks.

What causes chronic diarrhea?

Chronic diarrhea is often a symptom of an illness, infection, or other condition.

  • Reactions to food: Some people have difficult digesting some foods, such as lactose (a sugar found in dairy products), fats, caffeine, or alcohol.
  • Medical conditions: This includes conditions that affect the stomach or intestines, such as inflammatory bowel disease. Thyroid and pancreas disorders and cancers can also cause chronic diarrhea. Some autoimmune diseases, such as celiac disease, may also cause chronic diarrhea.
  • Infections: These may be caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites.
  • Medicines: This includes laxatives, antibiotics, and heart medicine. Some minerals, such as magnesium, may also cause chronic diarrhea.
  • Surgery or procedures: This includes stomach or bowel surgery, especially if it damages muscles that control bowel movements.

What are the signs and symptoms of chronic diarrhea?

  • Abdominal pain
  • Urgent need to have a bowel movement or loss of bowel control
  • Blood, mucous, or pus in your bowel movement
  • Weight loss
  • Anal irritation and inflammation

How is chronic diarrhea diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask you about your symptoms. Tell him if you have noticed any unusual color or smell to your bowel movements. Tell him if you have blood, mucus, or oil droplets in your bowel movement. He may ask you if you have noticed symptoms after you eat certain foods. Tell your healthcare provider if you have travelled recently or been around others with the same symptoms. You may need the following tests:

  • Blood tests: A sample of your blood may be sent to a lab to test that organs, such as your kidneys, are working correctly.
  • Bowel movement sample: A sample of your bowel movement may be sent to a lab to help find the cause of your chronic diarrhea.
  • X-ray: This is a picture to look at your abdomen. It may show the cause of your chronic diarrhea.
  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your abdomen. The pictures may show the cause of your chronic diarrhea. You may be given a dye before the pictures are taken to help healthcare providers see the pictures better. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye.
  • Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy: This is a procedure to examine the inside of your colon (large intestine). A flexible tube with a small light and camera on the end is used.

How is chronic diarrhea treated?

Your treatment will depend on the condition causing your chronic diarrhea. Treatment may include any of the following:

  • Oral rehydration therapy: You may need to drink more liquids to replace body fluids lost through diarrhea. You may also need to drink an oral rehydration solution (ORS). An ORS has the right amounts of sugar, salt, and minerals in water to replace body fluids.
  • Antidiarrheal medicine: This medicine is given to decrease the amount of diarrhea you are having. Some of these medicines coat the intestine (bowel) and make the BM less watery. Other antidiarrheal medicine works by slowing down how fast the intestine is moving.

What are the risks of chronic diarrhea?

If left untreated, chronic diarrhea may lead to dehydration. It may also make it difficult for your body to absorb nutrients from the food you eat. This may cause you to lose weight or become anemic. These conditions may be serious and become life-threatening.

What can I do to manage my symptoms?

  • Do not eat foods that cause your diarrhea: If you know which foods cause your diarrhea, do not eat them. If you do not know what causes your diarrhea, keep a food diary to see if your symptoms are caused by certain foods. Bring this to your follow-up visits.
  • Drink plenty of liquids: You may need to drink extra liquids to prevent dehydration. You may need an ORS. This can be found at most grocery stores or pharmacies.
  • Do not drink or eat foods that contain caffeine or alcohol: These may cause your symptoms to be worse and lead to dehydration.
  • Wash your hands often: Use soap and water. Germ-killing hand gel is available if you are not near water. Wash your hands after you use the bathroom, change a child's diaper, or sneeze. Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have new signs and symptoms.
  • Your signs and symptoms do not improve, or they get worse.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • Your skin, mouth, and tongue are dry, and you feel very thirsty.
  • You have blood or pus in your bowel movement.
  • You have trouble eating, drinking, or keeping food down.
  • You have severe abdominal pain.
  • You feel lightheaded, weak, or you faint.
  • Your heart beats faster than normal or you have trouble breathing.
  • You are confused or cannot think clearly.

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.

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