Diarrhea and constipation

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Diarrhea and constipation

Most people experience diarrhea and constipation from time to time. Thankfully, the discomfort is often short-lived.

Most people experience diarrhea and constipation from time to time. Thankfully, the discomfort is often short-lived.

Diarrhea: When the intestines don't absorb enough fluids

After a meal, your small intestine absorbs fluid and nutrients from the food you've eaten. Your colon absorbs most of the remaining liquid from digested food particles to form semisolid stools. Anything that disrupts this process may cause diarrhea. For example:

  • Viral infection. This is the most common cause of diarrhea. An invading virus can damage the lining of the small intestine, disrupting fluid and nutrient absorption. Typically, symptoms improve on their own within one to three days.
  • Bacterial infection. Certain bacteria in contaminated food or water can release a toxin that causes your intestinal cells to secrete salt and water. This overwhelms the capacity of your small intestine and colon to absorb fluid. Typically, symptoms improve on their own within one to three days.
  • Other inflammatory agents. Sometimes diarrhea is caused by a parasite or a reaction to medication, such as antibiotics. Once the parasite is eliminated or an offending antibiotic is discontinued, the diarrhea usually disappears.
  • Excessive caffeine or alcohol. Caffeine and alcohol stimulate the passage of stool. Too much may cause waste to move through your small intestine and colon too quickly.
  • Intestinal disorder. Diarrhea that persists or recurs often may be related to an intestinal disorder. Possible causes include irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, lactose intolerance or celiac disease.

Self-care for diarrhea

Diarrhea ordinarily clears up on its own, without the need for antibiotics or other medications. Take care of yourself while you're recovering:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Try water, weak tea, diluted juices or beverages containing electrolytes, such as Gatorade or Powerade.
  • Gradually add solid foods to your diet. Begin with easily digested food such as crackers, toast, rice, cereal and chicken.
  • Avoid anything that may prolong diarrhea. Wait a few days before consuming dairy products, fatty foods, spicy foods and beverages containing caffeine or alcohol.
  • Don't take antacids containing magnesium. Magnesium can cause diarrhea.

Constipation: When stools are dry and hard to pass

Constipation is the repeated painful or difficult passage of hard stool or having a bowel movement only once or twice a week. It's not the absence of a bowel movement every day.

Your colon absorbs water from food residue. As food waste stays in your colon, it progressively loses water content. Eventually, the waste becomes dry and difficult to pass. Here are a few common culprits:

  • Age. As you get older, muscles in your digestive tract may become less active.
  • Eating and drinking habits. A low-fiber diet and lack of fluids may lead to constipation.
  • Sedentary lifestyle. Lack of physical activity is sometimes the problem.
  • Medication. Constipation may be a side effect of various drugs, including those used to treat Parkinson's disease, high blood pressure, pain and depression.
  • Inattention to bowel habits. Frequent use of laxatives or repeatedly ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement may result in constipation.
  • Other medical problems. Various conditions can be associated with prolonged constipation, including hypothyroidism and Parkinson's disease.

Self-care for constipation

Lifestyle changes are often the safest way to manage constipation. To help ease symptoms:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Liquid helps keep your stool soft. Drink water or another fluid whenever you eat, and always have some water when you're thirsty.
  • Eat more fiber. Fiber helps bulk up and soften stool so that it passes smoothly through the digestive tract. Try beans, bran cereal, whole-wheat products, fruit and vegetables. To avoid problems with gas, add high-fiber foods to your diet slowly.
  • Enjoy regular meals. Eating on a regular schedule promotes normal bowel function.
  • Get physical. Exercise stimulates the intestinal muscles, which speeds the passage of food through your digestive tract.
  • Heed nature's call. The longer you delay going to the bathroom once you feel the urge, the harder and drier your stool becomes.
  • Reduce stress. Stress can slow digestion.

When to see your doctor

Generally, constipation and diarrhea are temporary conditions. Sometimes, however, they can indicate more serious problems. Consult your doctor if you experience:

  • Diarrhea that lasts longer than three days or is accompanied by fever, dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Constipation that lasts longer than seven days, despite changes in diet or exercise
  • An unexplained change in bowel patterns or habits
  • Blood in your stool
  • Intense abdominal pain

Treatment will depend on what's causing your symptoms.

Last Updated: 05/03/2005
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