What is diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea is a condition with more than three stools a day. The condition is either acute or chronic, where the condition lasts for more than four weeks.
What are the symptoms of diarrhoea?
As diarrhoea is often characterised by frequent stools, the symptoms of diarrhoea will often include the following symptoms:
- Weight loss
- Excessive sweating
What are the causes and symptoms of acute and chronic diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea can be caused by many factors. Acute diarrhoea is often caused by a virus or by bacteria. In addition, acute infectious diarrhoea is one of the leading causes of death among children in the developing world, and the condition should therefore always be taken seriously even though most people will experience diarrhoea at some point in their lives and often recover quickly. It is estimated that around 2.5 million people die as a result of acute infectious diarrhoea each year. Many different viruses, bacteria and parasites cause diarrhoea.
An inflammatory infection of the gastrointestinal tract:
Viruses or bacteria like salmonella or campylobacter may cause inflammatory diarrhoea. The small microorganisms enter the body and cause irritation or even damage of the mucous membrane of the small and large intestine, which results in mucus or blood in the stool. The immune system will help fight the infection, and the infection will often cause a fever, abdominal pain and abdominal cramps. The infection can be caused by contaminated food or transmission of the disease from infected persons. For this reason, hand washing after visits to the lavatory and good hygiene when handling food are very important.
Food poisoning – non-inflammatory infection:
Bacteria such as staphylococcus, Clostridium perfringens or salmonella can cause watery stools, which rarely contain blood, and the patient rarely has a fever. Often it is the toxins produced by staphylococcus which contaminate food or drinking water, thus infecting the intestinal tract. These toxins are not easily destroyed, so even though the bacteria are killed or the food is heated to a high temperature, the toxins can still irritate the mucous membrane of the intestinal tract and quickly lead to vomiting, nausea and watery stools.
Chronic diarrhoea can also be caused by infections, typically originating from visits abroad, but more often, the cause is not infections. Chronic diarrhoea can be caused by:
- Chronic inflammatory intestinal diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, both of which cause symptoms like bloody stools, abdominal cramps, fever without explanation, and a poor general condition.
- In addition, chronic diarrhoea can be caused by allergies due to e.g. gluten or lactose. If this is the case, the diarrhoea will often be followed by bloating, nausea, vomiting and malaise and occasionally symptoms from eyes, nose and skin.
- A more serious cause is intestinal cancer, which can also manifest itself in diarrhoea.
What are the treatments for acute and chronic diarrhoea?
First and foremost, good hygiene is an important preventive factor against many microorganisms, which can cause both acute and chronic diarrhoea. In case of acute diarrhoea, the treatment will often include drinking lots of fluids to avoid dehydration. It is beneficial to add sugar and salt to the water to increase the body’s absorption. In addition, starchy foods are beneficial. Often, it is unnecessary to treat acute diarrhoea further, as the condition often passes by itself. A supplement containing lactic acid bacteria can be used to restore the level of healthy bacteria in the gut. If you experience intense or intermittent abdominal pain and/or fever, it is recommended to consult a doctor.
Patients suffering from chronic diarrhoea might consider taking a drug called loperamide, which reduces diarrhoea, but it is recommended to uncover the exact cause of the watery stools before doing so. The reason for this is that diarrhoea caused by infections will get worse through use of loperamide. If the cause is food allergies the foods in question should be avoided. The more serious cases like inflammatory intestinal diseases or cancer require a different, more targeted treatment which should be determined by a doctor. Chronic diarrhoea should therefore always be examined by a doctor so the correct treatment can be initiated.