Diarrhea is the source of an uncouth childhood rhyme and the bane of many parents, but it doesn’t necessarily stop being a problem in the adult years. Odds are good you’ll experience it at several points in your life, and some people struggle regularly with loose and watery stools.
But even if it’s embarrassing and usually not serious, diarrhea can be life threatening and is something to take seriously.
"Diarrhea is responsible for more than 300 deaths per year in North America,” says gastroenterologist Dr. Partha Nandi.
"Diarrhea and related complications can cause severe illness, especially in high-risk groups, such as patients with severe co morbid conditions, underlying immunosuppression, and advanced age."
Here’s everything you need to know about diarrhea in the adult years, from its causes and risks to how to prevent and treat it — and when it warrants a trip to the doctor.
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, the second most-reported illness in the U.S., hits the average adult four times a year. It’s characterized by loose and watery stools, bloating and cramps, and an urgent need for bowel movements.
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When adults get diarrhea, there’s usually an illness behind it. "The main causes of diarrhea in otherwise healthy people are infectious, which includes viruses, bacteria and parasites,” says gastroenterologist Dr. Partha Nandi
. But there could be other reasons for diarrhea as well, Nandi says: eating or drinking fructose or artificial sweeteners, some medications, and the after-effects of surgical procedures are other causes for loose stools.
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"Bacteria are part of everyday life, and normally bacteria and humans live together peacefully,” Nandi says. "However, some bacteria can wreak havoc on your digestive well-being.” These bacteria can work their ways into your body through bad food, spread viruses, contaminated water, or a variety of other means, and a lot of pooping can be the result.
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Travel is a wonderful thing, but the resulting exposure to a cornucopia of new bacteria can lead to travellers’ diarrhea
, which is no way to spend a vacation. Read up on any particular risks of your destination in advance, wash your hands often, and consider bringing along medication to treat diarrhea if it might be hard to find where you’ll be.
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Experiencing diarrhea regularly, and know illness is not to blame? Medication could have something to do with it
. "Many medications, such as antibiotics, can cause diarrhea. Antibiotics destroy both good and bad bacteria, which can disturb the natural balance of bacteria in your intestines,” Nandi says. "Other drugs that cause diarrhea are cancer drugs and antacids with magnesium.” Talk to your physician about what you’re taking to see if one of your prescription or OTC drugs might be the cause.
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Digestive issues with certain foods can also lead to diarrhea. For some people the culprit is sugar alcohols (found in some low-carb foods) or artificial sweeteners. Others have problems with dairy products. "Diarrhea may be the result if your body has trouble digesting certain foods,” Nandi says. "The undigested food causes nausea, diarrhea, cramping, and gas, normally within 30 minutes to two hours of entering your system."
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Many adults develop a degree of lactose intolerance
as they age, and that can be a cause of diarrhea. "Lactose is a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. People who have difficulty digesting lactose have diarrhea after eating dairy products,” says Nandi. "Your body makes an enzyme that helps digest lactose, but for many people, the levels of this enzyme drop off rapidly after childhood. This causes an increased risk of lactose intolerance as you age."
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Some more serious conditions can also lead to diarrhea: Crohn’s disease, ulcerative or microscopic colitis, celiac disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, chronic pancreatitis, Addison’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome are all possible, Nandi says. One more reason to get checked out if you have persistently alarming poops!
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There’s a lot you can do in your own kitchen to prevent infectious conditions
that lead to diarrhea. "To reduce your risk of infectious diarrhea, cook meat, poultry, and eggs completely,” Nandi says. "Wash your hands, utensils, and surfaces. Refrigerate leftovers quickly; don’t leave them at room temperature longer than necessary."
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Diarrhea can lead to dehydration
, which can be life threatening if not treated. The symptoms of serious dehydration include excessive thirst, dry mouth or skin, little or no urination, weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness, fatigue, and dark-coloured urine. In children signs also include crying without tears, fever above 102 C, dry mouth and tongue, more than three hours without a wet diaper, sunken appearance in the face or belly, and drowsiness, irritability, and unresponsiveness. "Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children, older adults and those with weakened immune systems,” Nandi says. "If you have signs of serious dehydration, seek medical help."
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Diarrhea with an infectious cause behind it usually ends after two or three days, Nandi says. If it continues past a few days, talk to a doctor.