Is Diarrhea...Good? - Gastroenteritis Explained
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So you’re starving after a day at work and pull out some pasta from the fridge. You can’t quite remember how long it’s been there, but it looks pretty good. You warm it up in the microwave and gobble it down. It’s a bit cold in the middle but who cares right?!
Unfortunately your gut cares! A few hours later you’re running back and forth from the toilet with loose, watery diarrhea. On one of your many trips to the toilet, you start to wonder, is the diarrhea actually helping you clear the infection and do you need medications to try and stop it?
Let’s take a closer look at what causes diarrhea in the first place and what you can do to recover as quickly as possible.
The timing of diarrhea can given an important clue about the cause. Diarrhea that develops within 24 hours of eating something dodgy, is most likely going to be cause by an infection.
Diarrhea can be caused by viruses like norovirus or rotavirus, bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter or one-celled organisms called Protozoa. Of the three, a viral infection is the most common cause of diarrhoea.
Diarrhea develops because these infections either infiltrate the lining of the intestine or release a toxin. Whichever method of attack, the result is the same – the lining of the intestines becomes inflamed and your body tries to flush out the infection by secreting mucous and fluid. This is what you experience as diarrhea – loose and watery stools that you need to pass every few hours.
Most cases of diarrhea will settle down within 4 to 7 days, once the immune system has cleared the infection and the inflammation has resolved.
So in one way, diarrhea is good because it helps remove the infection and any potential toxins. But there is a downside. Diarrhea makes you lose not only water, but also other electrolytes like salt and potassium.
Drinking water alone is not enough to replace these electrolytes, so try to drink fluids that are a mixture of water, salt and sugar. For mild diarrhoea, fruit juices or sports drinks are usually enough to meet your fluid and salt needs. You can even make your own electrolyte replacement drinks at home with 500ml of water, mixed with half a teaspoon of salt, 2 to 4 tablespoons of sugar or honey and something for flavoring like 250ml of orange juice.
For more severe diarrhea you may need to but oral rehydration solutions to get enough electrolytes back into your body.
In terms of your diet, you should only eat as much as your body can tolerate. If you have severe nausea or vomiting, then a short period of drinking fluids only will not harm you. When you’re feeling up to it, you can introduce starchy food like rice, noodles or potatoes. Other good options are soups, fruits (like bananas), and boiled vegetables.
It’s a good idea to avoid high fat foods because these can be difficult to digest. Also it’s common to get a brief period of lactose intolerance after a gut infection, so temporarily avoiding dairy can also be helpful.
What about anti-diarrhea medications? These can be bought over the counter and can be helpful for controlling the frequency of motions for a short period of time. They work quite well but aren’t recommended for continuous use because they can prevent excretion of the infection and may lead to pooling of fluid in the gut.
What about probiotics? Well these aren’t essential, but they can help in reducing the duration of diarrhea. One study showed that taking probiotics reduced the duration of diarrhea by an average of 25 hours. So if you’d like to shorten your illness as much as possible, probiotics may be helpful. The two most commonly studied probiotics are Lactobacillus GG and S Boulardii, so look for these on the label when you go to the pharmacy.
Since diarrhea caused by an infection usually goes away on its own, antibiotics are not used routinely. Some drawbacks of using antibiotics include unwanted side effects, the potential for bacterial resistance and killing off healthy gut bacteria.
When to see a Doctor Urgently
There are some situations where you may benefit from seeing a doctor: if you have bloody diarrhoea or large volume diarrhoea, severe abdominal pain and fever, severe nausea and vomiting that prevents you from drinking, if diarrhea lasts for more than one week or if you are elderly or have other medical conditions that would delay recovery from an infection. Your doctor will consider whether antibiotics or even intravenous fluids may help you.
So diarrhea isn’t fun, but in a weird way your body is doing you a favour by getting all that crap out of your system. Pun totally intended! As always leave a comment if you have any questions, thanks for watching and I’ll see you in the next one.
References and Further reading:
2017 Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Infectious Diarrhea: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=29053792
Probiotics for treating Acute Infectious Diarrhea (Cochrane Review): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=21069673
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