Most of the time, diarrhea is more of an unpleasant inconvenience than a medical emergency. Stress, trying a new food, getting a virus, or drinking contaminated water on vacation could all cause loose stools for a day or two.
Sometimes, however, diarrhea arises from an underlying medical condition that requires medical intervention. Still, no matter what causes your loose stools, if you ignore diarrhea for too long, you could suffer dehydration, and that can quickly become a medical emergency.
The board-certified gastroenterologists at Northern Medical Group, gastroenterology division, specialize in diagnosing and treating conditions and diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, including diarrhea. Do you have diarrhea? Find out if it’s time to consider medical intervention.
Is your diarrhea acute or chronic?
Acute illness and injuries are those that occur suddenly, due to a trigger. Acute diarrhea may be related to a stomach virus, a bacterial infection, food sensitivity, a reaction to a medication, or a multitude of other temporary conditions.
After the pathogen or irritant passes through your digestive system, acute diarrhea usually resolves. A stomach virus, for instance, will typically affect your system for no more than 2-3 days. Your diarrhea should resolve as the virus runs its course.
Chronic illnesses or injuries are those that last for longer than a few days or recur. Chronic, long-term diarrhea is often a symptom of an underlying medical condition, such as:
Other medical issues that don’t necessarily originate in your digestive system can also cause persistently loose stools, such as diabetes and thyroid disorders.
Is it time for a doctor?
Your symptoms are your guide to when your diarrhea needs medical intervention. For instance — regardless of whether it’s acute or chronic — diarrhea can cause dehydration.
Even though young children and the elderly are especially at risk for dehydration, it can affect anyone at any age. Dehydration can cause kidney failure and quickly become life-threatening.
Seek medical care whenever dehydration is a concern. Symptoms of dehydration in children and infants include:
- Dry mouth and tongue with gummy rather than watery saliva
- Absence of tears when crying
- Lack of wet diapers for three hours
- Sunken eyes, cheeks, soft spot on top of the skull
- Listlessness, unresponsiveness
In adults, dehydration may cause:
- Dry mouth and tongue
- Less frequent urination and darkly colored urine
- Fatigue, dizziness, lethargy
Other symptoms that could indicate your diarrhea requires medical intervention include:
- In adults, frequent watery stools for more than two days
- In children, diarrhea that lasts more than a day
- Bloody or dark tarry stools
- Diarrhea that increases rather than slows
- Diarrhea that keeps returning
- Diarrhea that’s accompanied by abdominal pain or bloating
- Loose, watery stools combined with a fever of 102 F or above
- Diarrhea that occurs when you consume certain foods, such as dairy or wheat
Be wary, too, of diarrhea that occurs within weeks of completing a course of antibiotics. This may indicate a clostridium difficile infection, which is contagious, can cause 10-15 diarrheal stools daily and can result in colitis.
Don’t wait for dehydration to set in before getting help with your diarrhea. If you have long-lasting or chronic diarrhea, contact us today by calling the office nearest you or request an appointment online. We treat women, men, and children in the Hudson Valley area with offices in Poughkeepsie, New York, Fishkill, New York, and Highland, New York.