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Digestive Disorders




Loose, watery stools.

Increased frequency of bowel movements.

Abdominal cramping and pain.

When To Call Your Doctor

Call a doctor if diarrhea persists for more than 48 hours or is accompanied by lightheadedness, severe cramping, fever over 101° F, or blood in the stool.

Call a doctor if diarrhea recurs frequently.

Emergency: Call a doctor promptly if an infant or an elderly person shows symptoms of dehydration.

What Is It?

Acute diarrhea, the passage of frequent, loose, or watery stools, is not a disease itself but rather a symptom of an underlying disorder. As food passes through the digestive system, water is normally reabsorbed through the wall of the large intestine. Diarrhea—and, at times, dehydration—results when fluid is not reabsorbed but remains in and is expelled with the fecal matter. Although diarrhea usually subsides without treatment within two or three days, any resulting dehydration is serious (particularly among infants and the elderly) and needs quick treatment.

What Causes It?

Food poisoning from various causes, including viruses or bacteria.

Non-food-related viral infections.

A reaction to certain foods (such as citrus fruits or beans) in some people.

Large amounts of artificial sweeteners, such as sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol, which are found in diet foods, chewing gum, and other products.

Alcoholic beverages.

Some medications including antihypertensives, drugs to combat heart disease, over-the-counter antacids containing magnesium, and certain antibiotics.

Infectious diseases such as traveler's diarrhea, typhoid fever, amoebic dysentery, and bacillary dysentery (shigellosis).

Emotional stress and anxiety.


Do not eat food that you suspect has spoiled.

Avoid foods to which you are sensitive.

When traveling abroad, drink only bottled or boiled water or other bottled beverages. Eat cooked foods and fruit you can peel yourself. Local water or raw foods may contain bacteria that can cause diarrhea.

Learn ways of coping with emotional stress, and try to avoid stressful situations.


Diarrhea may be self-diagnosed by the observation of characteristic symptoms.

Laboratory stool analysis may be warranted in cases of persistent diarrhea.

How To Treat It

Prevent dehydration (especially important for the elderly and young children) by drinking a solution of one teaspoon of salt and four teaspoons of sugar in one quart of water. Measure accurately: Too much salt may worsen dehydration. Drink one pint of solution each hour while diarrhea lasts.

Do not take over-the-counter antidiarrheal medications for the first few hours (the diarrhea may be ridding your body of infectious agents or irritants). If work or other obligations necessitate the use of an antidiarrheal medication, use one containing loperamide (such as Imodium A-D) or bismuth subsalicylate (such as Pepto-Bismol).

Limit (or avoid) milk products, alcohol, and foods rich in fiber during recovery.


From Johns Hopkins Symptoms and Remedies, the complete home medical reference. You can order this book now on our secure server.




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Digestive Disorders

The Digestive Disorders White Paper from The Johns Hopkins White Papers series is an annual, in-depth report written by Hopkins physicians.

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Johns Hopkins Symptoms and Remedies
An easy-to-use reference work that can help you pinpoint the cause of hundreds of symptoms, from abdominal pain to skin rash to swollen glands.


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