What Is Diarrhea ?

Man in grey jumper clutching stomach or abdomen. Photo shows mid -part of body, no head. Could he be suffering with IBS, diarrhea/diarrhoea or constipation.
Photo by Darko Djurin (Dr Neumann), c/o Pixabay.

Diarrhea is one of the leading causes of death in the developing world. The situation is best defined as the passage of liquid, loose or unformed stools at an increased frequency.

The frequency is usually at least three times in a 24 hour period according to the WHO.

The spelling can take two forms: diarrhea (US) or diarrhoea (UK). We will adopt the US spelling for this article.

For any adult on a typical Western diet, when the stool weight is generally above 200 grams per day, it can be thought of as diarrheal. In children just the passage of one large watery stool is considered to be diarrhea. If there is frequent passage of normal stools than this is not considered diarrheal however.

The condition can be defined according to the time period. An acute form occurs when it is less than two weeks, the persistent form lasts between 2 and 4 weeks whilst a chronic form is over 4 weeks in length.

How Diarrhea Takes Different Forms

 There are three basic forms: 

  1. watery
  2. dysentery
  3. persistent

The watery form is often produced by a food poisoning event involving a virus such as rotavirus, or by a bacteria such as cholera or E.coli.

Dysentery can be caused by amoebic or bacillary. The persistent form has many causes and can be the most difficult to treat. 

Acute Diarrhea

If we suffer with acute diarrhea it is most likely that we have an infection of some sort and that is the situation in just over 90% of all cases. The remaining cases are due to certain types of food, which might be toxic, various medication and more rarely ischemia. 

We often discuss food poisoning and many infectious agents belong in this category. They are usually passed to us by fecal-oral transmission.

The Issues Associated With Diarrhea

One of the major issues caused by diarrhea is dehydration. This is the loss of electrolytes which leads to considerable water loss from the body. Such losses affect mental acuity, body weight, muscle functioning amongst many others.

Dehydration is adults is characterised by the following:

  • thirst
  • low levels of urination
  • dry skin
  • fatigue and tiredness
  • dark-coloured urine
  • dizziness and being light headed
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