Diarrhea is a condition of loose and often watery stool. Diarrhea can be caused by viruses, bacteria, and sometimes protozoa (single-celled organisms). Viral infections are the most common and the main risk is dehydration and electrolyte disturbances secondary to dehydration. Bacterial infections can also cause dehydration but may also cause high fever, bloody stools, and abdominal pain. Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, and strains of E coli are all potential causes of bacterial diarrhea. Traveler’s diarrhea is another cause of bacterial diarrhea.
Most cases of diarrhea are uncomfortable and not serious and will resolve without treatment. However, some forms of diarrhea can be severe causing loss of water and electrolytes requiring treatment. Invasive bacteria can cause serious illness with dangerous complications and additional testing may sometimes be necessary. We can treat with anti-diarrhea medicines in most cases but these can be contraindicated if there is a serious bacterial diarrhea.
Most diarrheal illnesses are self-limited meaning they will get better on their own without treatment. The main concern is to maintain your fluid intake to prevent dehydration. Diarrhea that is persistent, contains blood or mucous, results in high fevers or significant abdominal pain may be more serious. If you have any of these symptoms, seek evaluation by a physician. In some cases, we may run tests on the stool to determine the cause of infection to help guide treatment.