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Overview of Diarrhea

Diarrhea is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality among children aged less than 5 years, particularly in the underdeveloped and developing countries.1 The most commonly occurring health problem affecting all ages, diarrhea is the frequent passage of loose and watery stools. In most cases, an episode of diarrhea will be accompanied with abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting or a fever. Diarrhea in adults usually settles without complications. However, in infants and young children, diarrhea can lead to acute dehydration, which is a life-threatening condition.

The most common cause of diarrhea is viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu), which is a viral infection that usually subsides on its own within a few days. Other common causes are traveler’s diarrhea and food poisoning, which occurs as a result of eating food or drinking water contaminated with bacteria or parasites.2 Certain medications, particularly antibiotics and chemotherapy for cancer can cause diarrhea. Further, emotional stress and presence of medical conditions such as lactose intolerance, inflammatory bowel diseases and celiac disease can also trigger diarrhea.

First Aid of Diarrhea

The following are the initial steps in controlling acute diarrhea:

  • Drink plenty of fluid in the form of water or rehydration drink in order to avoid dehydration.
  • Consume active cultures of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) which can be found in curd, yogurt and in supplements. Probiotics make diarrhea less severe and shorten its duration.
  • Try the BRAT diet, which includes bananas, rice, applesauce and dry toast. This may help to thicken the stool and regulate bowel movements.
  • Have adequate rest.
  • If the person has severe diarrhea and is dehydrated, take to hospital immediately, particularly if he/she is a child as administration of intravenous fluids may be required to correct dehydration.

Signs and Symptoms of Dehydration

It’s important to recognize dehydration early. Untreated dehydration can develop into shock. The signs and symptoms of dehydration include the following:

  • Dizziness and weakness.
  • Little or no urine for 12 hor longer.
  • Dry mouth and tongue.
  • Cool, pale and clammy skin.

Symptoms of Dehydration in Children

  • Sunken eyes or cheeks.
  • Dry mouth and tongue.
  • Absence of tears when crying.
  • Loss of skin turgor.
  • No wet diapers for more than three hours.
  • Irritability and persistent crying.
  • Sunken or depressed fontanelle (in infants).

Do’s and Don’ts

  • Avoid consuming milk-based products if you have diarrhea.
  • Avoid spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine until 48 h after all symptoms have disappeared.
  • Avoid chewing gum that contains sorbitol.
  • Avoid over-the-counter antidiarrhea medications unless prescribed by a doctor.
  • Wash hands regularly particularly before touching any food, as hand washing had been shown to reduce diarrhea episodes by about 30%.1
  • Teach young children not to put objects in their mouth.
  • While traveling, drink only bottled water and avoid eating uncooked or uncovered food or fruits that do not have peels.
  • Avoid strenuous exercise as it increases the risk of dehydration.


1.Ejemot R, Ehiri J, Meremikwu M, Critchley J. Hand washing for preventing diarrhoea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008; (1): CD004265.

2.Al-Abri SS, Beeching NJ, Nye FJ. Traveller's diarrhea. Lancet Infect Dis. 2005; 5(6): 349–360.

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Written by: healthplus24 team
Date last updated: May 02, 2015

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