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The most common cause of diarrhea is a mild viral infection that resolves on its own within a few days, usually known as the
The most common cause of diarrhea is a mild viral infection that resolves on its own within a few days, usually known as the "stomach flu." Two other common causes of diarrhea is from food poisoning and traveler's diarrhea.

Diarrhea is a common medical disorder that afflicts almost everyone at some point during their lives. Its causes are many and varied, and often result from a viral or bacterial infection, medications, certain foods or alcoholic beverages, a parasitic infestation, or from disorders of the gastrointestinal tract that include colitis, chronic ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Most cases of diarrhea go away on their own, with or without medical intervention.

Diarrhea can rapidly deplete the body of fluids and electrolytes (salt and potassium). Electrolytes are important in keeping the body's fluid levels, cardiac rhythms, muscle contractions, and brain function all running smoothly.

Diarrhea that is persistent and severe — and accompanied with a fever — should always be brought to the attention of a physician because of risks associated with dehydration, malnutrition and infection. For more information or to schedule an appointment with a Virginia Mason gastroenterologist, call (206) 223-2319.

Symptoms of Diarrhea

Symptoms of diarrhea are well known and include:

  • An urgent need to defecate
  • Abdominal pain
  • Cramps
  • Gas
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Loose stools
  • Bloody stools
  • Rectal bleeding

Diagnosing the Cause of Diarrhea

If your diarrhea has not gone away in one or two days, you should see your physician to determine its cause. He or she will take a medical history and perform a physical exam, and may have you undergo the following tests and procedures:

    An electrolyte panel is a blood test that may be taken to determine if your levels of salt and potassium are normal. Your blood also may be tested for both red and white blood cell counts. A low red blood cell count may indicate anemia, from bleeding within the digestive tract. Elevated white blood cells, which fight infection, may mean that inflammation is present. Blood tests also can rule out diseases and other causes.
    A stool sample may be taken to identify a viral, bacterial or parasitic infection, or another cause.
    Small bowel enteroscopy or double-balloon enteroscopy (DBE) is an endoscopic procedure that uses a long skinny flexible tube with a miniature TV camera, to look at the esophagus, stomach and three to six feet of the small intestine. DBE is commonly used to help diagnose obscure gastrointestinal bleeding, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, small bowel tumors, and a hereditary condition called polyposis syndromes.
    During a colonoscopy procedure, your gastroenterologist uses a colonoscope to view the colon and rectum, and may take a tissue sample (biopsy) to help in the diagnosis.
    During this procedure you will drink a chalky substance that coats your throat, stomach and part of the small intestine. The liquid coating allows your gastroenterologist to see, on X-ray, abnormal areas of the upper gastrointestinal tract and small intestine. This procedure is also called a "barium swallow."
    In addition to a colonoscopy, a CT scan can determine if there is blockage or inflammation in the digestive tract.

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Treating Diarrhea

Treatment for diarrhea will depend on the severity of symptoms and its cause. If you have had a severe case of diarrhea, your gastroenterologist will want to ensure that you are properly hydrated and that your electrolyte (salt and potassium) levels are normal. You may then be prescribed an anti-diarrheal medication. If diarrhea is determined to be caused from a bacterial infection, you may be prescribed antibiotics to help clear up the infection. If diarrhea is caused from inflammatory bowel disease, your gastroenterologist will talk with you about appropriate medications to take with IBD.

In all cases, you will want to drink plenty of fluids to replace water and electrolytes that have been lost. Drinking water, soft drinks without caffeine (caffeine stimulates the bowel and may make diarrhea worse), tea, or a sports drink with salt and potassium added helps the body replenish these lost nutrients.

You will also want to take special care in avoiding greasy fried foods, raw fruits and vegetables, and whole-grain breads and cereals until the diarrhea has run its course. In addition to drinking plenty of fluids, you should consume low-fiber foods such as noodles, rice, white bread, bananas, apple sauce and cottage cheese.

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