Loose stools, or diarrhea, are soft or liquid bowel movements, which is one of the natural mechanisms the body has for eliminating toxins from the body. When loose stools happen, you can end up with dehydration since so much fluid is eliminated through your bowels. Typically, bouts of diarrhea last a couple of days. Occasionally, loose stools can persist over longer periods of time and can be a symptom of a more serious problem. Proper treatment depends on an accurate diagnosis of the cause of the loose stool.
Along with loose stools, you may experience abdominal pain or cramping, nausea and vomiting, bloating and a sense of urgency in which the loose stool is preceded by a feeling that “I have to get to a bathroom NOW”. Specific symptoms that accompany loose stools will depend on the cause of the problem.
A traditional Chinese diagnosis, Spleen Qi Deficiency is defined as loose stools, poor appetite and lack of energy. Generally, this deficiency is thought to be a result of stress, but the symptoms can be worsened by eating fried foods, cold drinks, raw vegetables and dairy products. In traditional Chinese medicine, the cure for this deficiency is to eat “warm” foods such as cinnamon or ginger tea.
Gastroenteritis, or the “stomach flu”, is an infection of the gastrointestinal tract. Transmitted by contact with contaminated food or an infected person, this kind of stomach upset can cause profuse diarrhea with cramping and pain. You may also have nausea and vomiting along with the loose stools. A healthy adult will typically recover from this illness in a few days without medical treatment. However, the very young and the elderly can become dehydrated very quickly so should be treated more aggressively. Treatment for the stomach flu is symptomatic – Tylenol or Motrin for fever and pain and frequent sips of clear fluids to maintain hydration. Prevention is the best medicine for gastroenteritis including avoiding possibly contaminated food and water and performing good hand hygiene! Hand washing is the most important infection prevention tool.
It is very common to hear reports of food poisoning that result from improper preparation or storage of food. Typically, loose stools are one of the most frequently reported symptoms that occur when food has been contaminated by bacteria. Diarrhea will usually be accompanied by severe abdominal cramping, nausea and vomiting. True food poisoning can last for up to 2 weeks with hospitalization sometimes being required. Again, the very young and very old and anyone with a compromised immune system are at higher risk for poor outcomes from food poisoning. Treatment is usually symptomatic with intravenous fluids often required for hydration.
Celiac disease is a disease that occurs when certain individuals eat the protein gluten. Producing something like an allergic reaction, celiac disease begins to damage the lining of the small intestine. This results in an inability of the body to absorb nutrients from food – and usually leads to chronic loose stools in addition to the organ damage that can occur because of dietary deficiencies. The only good treatment for celiac disease is to consume a diet free of gluten. Dietary control will not cure the disease but will control the symptoms and damage done by the disease.
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a relatively common disorder affecting the colon. IBS usually causes lower abdominal pain and cramping and loose stools that alternate with constipation. Treatment usually revolves around controlling the various triggers that tend to increase the frequency of the bouts of IBS. These triggers will vary from person to person but common triggers are stress, certain medications, and certain foods.
One of several inflammatory bowel diseases, Crohn’s disease can cause sudden abdominal pain, loose and bloody stools, and decreased appetite. The exact cause of the disease is not known but there seems to be an inherited component in development of the disease. There is also not a cure for Crohn’s but the symptoms of the disease can usually be controlled.
Another of the inflammatory bowel diseases, ulcerative colitis is a disease that causes inflammation and damage to the intestinal tract. People with this disease typically develop the symptoms over a period of time. These symptoms include abdominal pain, loose and sometimes bloody stools that may result in anemia, fever, nausea and vomiting, chronic fatigue, loss of appetite and eventual weight loss. While there is no cure, your healthcare provider can help reduce or control your symptoms.
Finally, there are many potential causes of loose stools including medical conditions such as diabetes, thyroid disorders, cancer and diseases of the nervous system. Lifestyle causes of loose stools can be variable and may include such things as alcoholism and long-distance running. Medications such as antibiotics, laxatives, and chemotherapy drugs can result in acute or chronic bouts of loose stools.