Diarrhea is defined as three or more watery stools per day, with the average adult having four episodes of diarrhea annually. It can be divided into acute or chronic depending upon the duration (acute: up to two weeks, chronic: over two weeks). There are four major causes of this unpleasant ailment to look out for.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Have you ever had a stressful event in your life come up only to be complicated with urgent trips to the washroom? If this is the case, you might be suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. Though this is a common presentation of IBS, it is not the only way the syndrome manifests. Other symptoms include cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and constipation.

IBS can be controlled with reduction of stress, lifestyle and diet changes. Some people may require medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and counseling.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

These include the chronic conditions, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s Disease. In ulcerative colitis, the lining of the colon becomes inflamed and develops open sores, or ulcers, which produce pus. The inflammation leads to abdominal discomfort and frequent passage of stools. Ulcerative colitis involves only the colon on a macro level and the innermost lining of the colon on a micro level.

In contrast, Crohn’s disease can involve any portion of the intestine, predominantly affecting the small intestine on a macro level. Crohn’s affects the entire thickness of the bowel wall on a micro level. Crohn’s also features a characteristic “skip lesion” pattern, leaving normal areas between affected areas.

If you suffer from these diseases, you may get symptoms including diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss due to loss of appetite, rectal bleeding, or a sensation of incomplete emptying.

There are certain medications that a doctor may prescribe to help with the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. These include olsalazine, mesalamine, or balsalazide, corticosteroids and immunosuppressive medications. Some people may require surgery.

Bacterial Gastroenteritis

As the name suggests, in bacterial gastroenteritis, bacteria invade and inflame the stomach (gastro) and intestines (enteritis). Another name for this ailment is “food poisoning.” There are many different bacteria that are responsible including the following: shigella (water), yersinia (pork), B. cereus (cereals), campylobacter (meat and poultry), staphylococcus (dairy products, meat, and eggs), E. coli (ground beef), salmonella (meat, dairy products, and eggs).

Symptoms include loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloody stools, fever, and fatigue.

Since bacterial gastroenteritis is a self-limited disease, treatment measures are supportive and conservative. This specifically means that the aim of the physician is to keep you hydrated with either oral rehydration solutions or intravenous rehydration depending upon the degree of diarrhea and consequent dehydration status. Rehydration is the cornerstone of treatment.

In some cases, antibiotics may be administered. An infant patient, an elder patient or an immunocompromised patient may require constant close monitoring as they are more prone to complications arising from gastroenteritis.

Viral Gastroenteritis

Viral Gastroenteritis, also known as the “stomach flu,” most commonly occurs due to Norovirus or Rotavirus.

Norovirus is the leading cause of gastroenteritis. It is a highly contagious virus and is notorious for its association with cruise ships. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, fever, chills, headache and abdominal pain. Norovirus affects both adults and children. Rotavirus is the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis in children. Symptoms are the same as norovirus.

The key to preventing viral gastroenteritis is good hygiene. Mostly, the viruses are transmitted through the fecal-oral route—which means that hand washing is vital to safeguard yourself and others against this disease!

In retrospect, anytime you suffer from diarrhea, regardless of cause, the principal foundation of treatment is rehydration. With proper care, diarrhea does not have to be such a vexatious malady.