Chronic Diarrhea

When bouts of this unpleasant condition signal a serious health problem

Chronic Diarrhea
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There's nothing remotely pleasant about having diarrhea, but the occasional run-in with the runs is rarely something to worry about. In fact, there are many potential causes of diarrhea. Among the most common are foodborne illness, or "food poisoning," viruses or bacteria that are passed between people, food allergies, and some medications.

If you begin to have intermittent diarrhea that's frequent, has no apparent cause, and becomes a chronic problem, you may have a serious health condition that should be evaluated by a doctor as soon as possible.

How Diarrhea Develops

The colon, also known as the large intestine, is responsible for forming solid waste from digested food that is not retained in the body. As the liquidy waste moves through the colon, the colon absorbs fluid from it, which is how stools are formed. Muscles in the colon move the stool along to the rectum for passage out of the body.

When something disrupts this process, causing too little water to be absorbed or the solid waste to pass too quickly through the large intestine, diarrhea can result.

A Sign of Something Serious?

Among the serious illnesses that can cause frequent bouts of diarrhea are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis (both forms of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD). Besides diarrhea, other symptoms of these conditions include stomach pain, rectal bleeding, fever, and weight loss.

Chronic diarrhea is also a symptom of colon cancer, which shares many of the same symptoms as IBD, such as weight loss, bloody stools, fever, and weight loss. Sometimes diarrhea alternates with constipation or with what are sometimes called "pencil stools," which are thinner than normal. Stomach cramps and bloating often occur as a result of colon cancer.

When to See a Doctor

If you have long-term diarrhea, don't put off seeing your doctor. When found early, colon cancer is highly curable with long-term survival rates well over 90 percent. If cancer is advanced and has spread beyond the colon, survival rates drop dramatically.

Here are more specific guidelines for when it's wise to see a doctor about diarrhea:

  • It's lasted for more than two weeks (either intermittently or present the entire time).
  • You see blood in or on your stool.
  • You have persistent abdominal cramps or severe pain.
  • You're vomiting at lot.
  • You experience alternating constipation and diarrhea.
  • You notice you're losing weight even though you haven't been trying to.

In order to figure out what's going on, your doctor will likely ask if there's a history of colon cancer in your family: As many as one in five people who develop colon cancer has a family member who also has had the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

Your doctor will want a stool sample to check for an infection due to bacteria, a virus, or a parasite. He also may send you for a screening exam such as a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy, both of which will require emptying your color completely the day before the procedure. This isn't pleasant, but many people report that it's not nearly as bad as they expected. Ask your doctor for as much information about screening as possible so you're ​prepared. One day of staying close to the toilet could be all it takes to save your life.

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