Diarrhea, also spelled diarrhoea, is the condition of having at least three loose or liquid bowel movements each day. It often lasts for a few days and can result in dehydration due to fluid loss. Signs of dehydration often begin with loss of the normal stretchiness of the skin and irritable behaviour. This can progress to decreased urination, loss of skin color, a fast heart rate, and a decrease in responsiveness as it becomes more severe. Loose but non-watery stools in babies who are exclusively breastfed, however, are normal.
The most common cause is an infection of the intestines due to either a virus, bacteria, or parasite – a condition also known as gastroenteritis. These infections are often acquired from food or water that has been contaminated by feces, or directly from another person who is infected. The three types of diarrhea are: short duration watery diarrhea, short duration bloody diarrhea, and persistent diarrhea (lasting more than two weeks). The short duration watery diarrhea may be due to an infection by cholera, although this is rare in the developed world. If blood is present it is also known as dysentery. A number of non-infectious causes can result in diarrhea. These include lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, hyperthyroidism, bile acid diarrhea, and a number of medications. In most cases, stool cultures to confirm the exact cause are not required.
Diarrheal disease may have a negative impact on both physical fitness and mental development. “Early childhood malnutrition resulting from any cause reduces physical fitness and work productivity in adults,” and diarrhea is a primary cause of childhood malnutrition. Further, evidence suggests that diarrheal disease has significant impacts on mental development and health; it has been shown that, even when controlling for helminth infection and early breastfeeding, children who had experienced severe diarrhea had significantly lower scores on a series of tests of intelligence.
Diarrhea can cause electrolyte imbalances, renal impairment, dehydration, and defective immune system responses. When oral drugs are administered, the efficiency of the drug is to produce a therapeutic effect and the lack of this effect may be due to the medication travelling too quickly through the digestive system, limiting the time that it can be absorbed. Clinicians try to treat the diarrheas by reducing the dosage of medication, changing the dosing schedule, discontinuation of the drug, and rehydration. The interventions to control the diarrhea are not often effective. Diarrhea can have a profound effect on the quality of life because fecal incontinence is one of the leading factors for placing older adults in long term care facilities (nursing homes).
The following types of diarrhea may indicate further investigation is needed:
Moderate or severe diarrhea in young children
Associated with blood
Continues for more than two days
Associated non-cramping abdominal pain, fever, weight loss, etc.
In food handlers, because of the potential to infect others;
In institutions such as hospitals, child care centers, or geriatric and convalescent homes.
A severity score is used to aid diagnosis in children.
Numerous studies have shown that improvements in drinking water and sanitation (WASH) lead to decreased risks of diarrhoea. Such improvements might include for example use of water filters, provision of high-quality piped water and sewer connections.
In institutions, communities, and households, interventions that promote hand washing with soap lead to significant reductions in the incidence of diarrhea. The same applies to preventing open defecation at a community-wide level and providing access to improved sanitation. This includes use of toilets and implementation of the entire sanitation chain connected to the toilets (collection, transport, disposal or reuse of human excreta).
Basic sanitation techniques can have a profound effect on the transmission of diarrheal disease. The implementation of hand washing using soap and water, for example, has been experimentally shown to reduce the incidence of disease by approximately 42–48%. Hand washing in developing countries, however, is compromised by poverty as acknowledged by the CDC: “Handwashing is integral to disease prevention in all parts of the world; however, access to soap and water is limited in a number of less developed countries. This lack of access is one of many challenges to proper hygiene in less developed countries.” Solutions to this barrier require the implementation of educational programs that encourage sanitary behaviours.
Given that water contamination is a major means of transmitting diarrheal disease, efforts to provide clean water supply and improved sanitation have the potential to dramatically cut the rate of disease incidence. In fact, it has been proposed that we might expect an 88% reduction in child mortality resulting from diarrheal disease as a result of improved water sanitation and hygiene. Similarly, a meta-analysis of numerous studies on improving water supply and sanitation shows a 22–27% reduction in disease incidence, and a 21–30% reduction in mortality rate associated with diarrheal disease.
Chlorine treatment of water, for example, has been shown to reduce both the risk of diarrheal disease, and of contamination of stored water with diarrheal pathogens.
Worldwide in 2004, approximately 2.5 billion cases of diarrhea occurred, which resulted in 1.5 million deaths among children under the age of five. Greater than half of these were in Africa and South Asia. This is down from a death rate of 4.5 million in 1980 for gastroenteritis. Diarrhea remains the second leading cause of infant mortality (16%) after pneumonia (17%) in this age group.
The majority of such cases occur in the developing world, with over half of the recorded cases of childhood diarrhea occurring in Africa and Asia, with 696 million and 1.2 billion cases, respectively, compared to only 480 million in the rest of the world.
Infectious diarrhea resulted in about 0.7 million deaths in children under five years old in 2011 and 250 million lost school days. In the Americas, diarrheal disease accounts for a total of 10% of deaths among children aged 1–59 months while in South East Asia, it accounts for 31.3% of deaths. It is estimated that around 21% of child mortalities in developing countries are due to diarrheal disease.