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Diarrhea is an increase in the wateriness, volume, or frequency of bowel movements. When you have diarrhea, foods and fluid pass too quickly -- or in too large an amount through your colon -- and your body doesn't absorb the fluid. Almost everyone has an episode of diarrhea at some time. Acute diarrhea is uncomfortable, but usually is not serious and will go away in a few days on its own. You should see a doctor, however, if your stool contains blood, if the diarrhea is severe, or if it lasts more than a few days. Children and elderly people are at higher risk of dehydration and should see their doctor sooner.
Signs and Symptoms
Diarrhea is a symptom of another health issue, such as an infection or a virus. Chronic diarrhea -- lasting longer than 4 weeks -- can be a sign of a serious illness, such as inflammatory bowel disease.
Symptoms may include:
If your child has diarrhea, call your pediatrician if it lasts more than 24 hours or if your child seems dehydrated. For an infant, that could mean having a dry diaper for several hours or crying without tears.
What Causes It?
Most diarrhea is caused by bacteria, parasites, or viruses, often from food or water. Eating local food and drinking local water during travel can result in "traveler's diarrhea." Diarrhea can also be caused by reactions to medications (including some vitamins, minerals, and herbs) and artificial sweeteners (such as sorbitol and mannitol). People who are lactose-intolerant can get diarrhea when they consume milk or dairy products. Diarrhea that results in blood in the stool, accompanied by fever or abdominal pain, could be caused by intestinal disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn's disease, and requires a doctor's care.
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms. Your doctor will also check to see if you are dehydrated and may feel your abdomen to see if it is tender and listen to your abdomen with a stethoscope. Sometimes you may be asked for a blood or stool sample to check for an infection.
In many cases, diarrhea will go away on its own. However, in severe cases your doctor may prescribe diphenoxylate and atropine (Lomotil). Your doctor also may prescribe antibiotics if the diarrhea is due to a bacterial infection.
Over the Counter
Since diarrhea is your body's way of getting rid of toxins, it's best to let it run its course. However, you may use over the counter antidiarrheal remedies for convenience, including loperamide (Imodium), bismuth sub-salicylate (Pepto-Bismol), and attapulgite (Kaopectate). Do not take bismuth sub-salicylate with the herbs meadowsweet (Spirea ulmaria), white willow (Salix alba), or wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Work with your health care provider to find remedies that are right for you.
Nutrition and Supplements
Do not use herbs to treat diarrhea without talking to your health care provider first, and always talk to your doctor before treating diarrhea in an infant. If your diarrhea is caused by certain types of infections, herbal treatments could make it worse. The most common herbal remedies for diarrhea are described below. They can be used as teas unless otherwise noted. Make teas with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 - 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 - 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 - 4 cups per day. Always tell your doctor about any herbs you may be taking.
Bulk forming agent:
Some evidence suggests that homeopathic treatment may help diarrhea. In one study, children with acute diarrhea who received an individualized homeopathic treatment for 5 days had diarrhea for significantly less time than children who had placebo. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy for a particular individual. Some of the most effective homeopathic remedies include:
Although several studies in Traditional Chinese Medicine journals have reported success in treating childhood diarrhea, acupuncturists in the United States do not generally treat this condition in children. However, acupuncture may be used when conventional treatment has failed. In this case, acupuncturists would look at both the nutritional value and the "energetic" qualities of food that might be affecting digestion.
Acupuncture is also combined with conventional medicine in treating diarrhea in adults.
Acupuncturists treat people with diarrhea based on an individualized assessment of the excesses and deficiencies of qi located in various meridians. In the case of diarrhea, a qi deficiency is usually detected in the spleen meridian. As a result, acupuncture treatments often focus on strengthening this meridian. Moxibustion (a technique in which the herb mugwort is burned over specific acupuncture points) is often used because it is thought to reach deeper into the body than needling alone.
If your diarrhea does not stop in 3 - 5 days, or if you become dehydrated, call your doctor.
If you are pregnant, tell your doctor. Dehydration can trigger early labor. Also, the diarrhea related spasms may cause you to have contractions. Do not take goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), barberry (Berberis vulgaris), or high doses of vitamin A if you are pregnant.
Diarrhea can be serious, even fatal, for infants and elderly people because of dehydration and the loss of electrolytes.
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Review Date: 3/2/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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