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It shouldn’t last more than a few days

If you can’t seem to get out of the bathroom because of diarrhea, you might be wondering what caused the problem, and when it’s time to seek the help of your doctor. 

“There are a variety of potential causes of diarrhea,” said Geisinger gastroenterologist Seth Kaufer, D.O. “But, luckily, it almost always passes on its own within several days.” But if it doesn’t or you begin to notice more severe symptoms, you might have more questions. 

Here’s what you need to know about the potential causes of diarrhea, and when you should see a doctor for treatment. 

What causes diarrhea

Most cases of diarrhea are caused by a virus that infects your gut, also known as the stomach flu. This can come from contaminated food or from germs passed by unwashed hands.

“Foods become contaminated when they come into contact with animal feces, whether that is from the harvesting or fertilizing process,” said Dr. Kaufer. “You can also get it from physical contact with a surface or animal that might be contaminated.” 

Beyond infections, you can experience diarrhea as a side effect of chronic digestive conditions like Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis. It can also be caused by alcohol abuse, allergies, medications or issues with your thyroid.

Symptoms, treatment and talking to your doctor
With common stomach flus or a viral infection, you will likely find yourself struggling to regulate your bowel movements and spend a lot of time in the bathroom for two or three days. Many people will also experience nausea and bloating, as well as the possibility of dehydration. 

“Any time you’re dealing with diarrhea, it’s important to stay hydrated because your body is losing so much water,” said Dr. Kaufer. “Dehydration is often more dangerous than the minor infection your body is fighting.” 

If you are dehydrated, you will notice your urine is dark or you’re not urinating often, your heart rate rises, you get a headache or feel confused. 

Staying hydrated by sipping on water or eating ice chips and eating simple foods like rice should calm your stomach once you’re able to eat again. In all, the ordeal should only last two or three days. If you notice symptoms after three days, you should contact your doctor. 

You should also contact your doctor if you begin to notice new or worsening symptoms. Sometimes diarrhea is the result of a bacterial infection, which is often more serious than a viral infection and will require antibiotics. Common types of bacterial infections include Escherichia coli (E. coli) and salmonella, and those more serious symptoms include bloody or black stool, weight loss, severe cramping or fever. 

Your doctor may order a blood or stool test to identify the cause of your symptoms, and may recommend a colonoscopy in extreme cases. 

“Antibiotics are most commonly prescribed to clear up an infection, but your doctor may recommend fluid replacement treatments or an adjustment to any medications that might be causing the problem,” said Dr. Kaufer.

Seth Kaufer, DO, is a gastroenterologist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre. To schedule an appointment, call 800-275-6401.
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