Diarrhea and Constipation

What are Diarrhea and Constipation?

Diarrhea is characterized by loose, watery stools that occur more frequently than usual. Diarrhea is something everyone experiences, and usually isn’t cause for alarm. When diarrhea becomes persistent, it can be a sign of a serious disorder, such as inflammatory bowel disease, or a less serious condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Constipation is characterized by infrequent or difficult bowel movements. Occasional constipation is very common, and shouldn’t cause too much concern. Chronic constipation can interfere with your daily life and it can be a symptom of a more serious disorder.

Diarrhea signs and symptoms may include:

  • Frequent, loose, watery stools
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Blood in the stool
  • Bloating

See your doctor if:

  • The diarrhea persists beyond two days
  • You become dehydrated
  • You suffer severe abdominal or rectal pain
  • You have bloody or black stools
  • You have a fever above 102 F (39 C)

In children, diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration. It’s advised that you contact a doctor if your child’s diarrhea doesn’t improve after a day or if they:

  • Have a fever above 102 F (39 C)
  • Have bloody or black stools
  • Have a dry mouth
  • Cry without tears
  • Are unusually sleepy, drowsy, unresponsive or irritable
  • Have a sunken appearance to the abdomen, eyes or cheeks
  • Have skin that doesn’t flatten if pinched and released

Constipation symptoms and signs of chronic constipation include:

  • Fewer than 3 stools a week
  • Lumpy or hard stools
  • Excessive straining
  • A blocked feeling
  • Physical assistance to pass stool, such as pressing on the abdomen or the use of a finger to remove stool.

Contact your doctor if constipation persists.

Diarrhea can be caused by a number of conditions. Common causes include:

  • Viruses
  • Bacteria and parasites
  • Side-effects from medications
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Fructose intolerance
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Abdominal surgery
  • Other digestive disorders

Constipation can be caused by a number of conditions. Common causes include:

  • Blockages in the colon or rectum caused by:
    • Anal fissure
    • Bowel obstruction
    • Colon cancer
    • Narrowing of the colon (bowel stricture)
    • Other abdominal cancer that presses on the colon
    • Rectal cancer
    • Rectocele
  • Problems with the nerves around the colon and rectum caused by:
    • Autonomic neuropathy
    • Multiple sclerosis
    • Parkinson’s disease
    • Spinal cord injury
    • Stroke
  • Difficulty with the muscles involved in elimination,

    • Inability to relax the pelvic muscles
    • Pelvic muscles don’t coordinate well
    • Weakened pelvic muscles
  • Hormone affecting conditions, such as:
    • Diabetes
    • Overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism)
    • Pregnancy
    • Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)

Diarrhea usually clears up within a couple of days without treatment. If it doesn’t clear up on its own or with the help of lifestyle changes, your doctor may recommend other treatments.

Other treatments include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Treatment to replace fluids
  • Adjustment of medications you’re taking
  • Treatment for underlying conditions

Treatment for chronic constipation usually involves diet and lifestyle changes. It can also involve the use of over-the-counter and prescription medications and supplements.

Lifestyle changes include:

  • Increase in fiber intake
  • Increased exercise
  • Not ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement

Medications and supplements include:

  • Fiber supplements
  • Stimulants
  • Osmotics laxatives to help fluid move through the colon
  • Lubricants, which enable stool to move through more easily
  • Stool softeners to moisten the stool
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