William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
In this Article
- Diarrhea facts
- What is diarrhea?
- How is diarrhea defined?
- Why does diarrhea develop?
- What symptoms are associated with diarrhea?
- What are common causes of acute diarrhea?
- Viral gastroenteritis
- Food poisoning
- Traveler's diarrhea
- Bacterial enterocolitis
- What are common causes of chronic diarrhea?
- What are the complications of diarrhea?
- When should the doctor be called for diarrhea?
- What tests are useful in the evaluation of diarrhea?
- How can dehydration be prevented and treated?
- What is the treatment for diarrhea?
- When should antibiotics be used for diarrhea?
- Find a local Gastroenterologist in your town
How can dehydration be prevented and treated?
Oral rehydration solutions (ORS) are liquids that contain a carbohydrate (glucose or rice syrup) and electrolyte (sodium, potassium, chloride, and citrate or bicarbonate). Originally, the World Health Organization (WHO) developed the WHO-ORS to rapidly rehydrate victims of the severe diarrheal illness, cholera. The WHO-ORS solution contains glucose and electrolytes. The glucose in the solution is important because it forces the small intestine to quickly absorb the fluid and the electrolytes. The purpose of the electrolytes in the solution is the prevention and treatment of electrolyte deficiencies.
In the U.S., convenient, premixed commercial ORS products that are similar to the WHO-ORS are available for rehydration and prevention of dehydration. Examples of these products are Pedialyte, Rehydralyte, Infalyte, and Resol.
Most of the commercially available ORS products in the U.S. contain glucose. Infalyte is the only one that contains rice carbohydrate instead of glucose. Most doctors believe that there are no important differences in effectiveness between glucose and rice carbohydrate.
Infants and young children
Most acute diarrhea in infants and young children is due to viral gastroenteritis and is usually short-lived. Antibiotics are not routinely prescribed for viral gastroenteritis. However, fever, vomiting, and loose stools can be symptoms of other childhood infections such as otitis media (infection of the middle ear), pneumonia, bladder infection, sepsis (bacterial infection in the blood) and meningitis. These illnesses may require early antibiotic treatment.
Infants with acute diarrhea also can quickly become severely dehydrated and therefore need early rehydration. For these reasons, sick infants with diarrhea should be evaluated by their pediatricians to identify and treat underlying infections as well as to provide instructions on the proper use of oral rehydration products.
Infants with moderate to severe dehydration usually are treated with intravenous fluids in the hospital. The pediatrician may decide to treat infants who are mildly dehydrated due to viral gastroenteritis at home with ORS.
Infants that are breast-fed or formula-fed should continue to receive breast milk during the rehydration phase of their illness if not prevented by vomiting. During, and for a short time after recovering from viral gastroenteritis, babies can be lactose intolerant due to a temporary deficiency of the enzyme, lactase (necessary to digest the lactose in milk) in the small intestine. Patients with lactose intolerance can develop worsening diarrhea and cramps when dairy products are introduced. Therefore, after rehydration with ORS, an undiluted lactose-free formula and diluted juices are recommended. Milk products can be gradually increased as the baby improves.
Older children and adults
During mild cases of diarrhea, diluted fruit juices, soft drinks containing sugar, sports drinks such as Gatorade, and water can be used to prevent dehydration. Caffeine and lactose containing dairy products should be temporarily avoided since they can aggravate diarrhea, the latter primarily in individuals with transient lactose intolerance. If there is no nausea and vomiting, solid foods should be continued. Foods that usually are well tolerated during a diarrheal illness include rice, cereal, bananas, potatoes, and lactose-free products.
ORS can be used for moderately severe diarrhea that is accompanied by dehydration in children older than 10 years of age and in adults. These solutions are given at 50 ml/kg over 4-6 hours for mild dehydration or 100 ml/kg over 6 hours for moderate dehydration. After rehydration, the ORS solution can be used to maintain hydration at 100 ml to 200 ml/kg over 24 hours until the diarrhea stops. Directions on the solution label usually state the amounts that are appropriate. After rehydration, older children and adults should resume solid food as soon as any nausea and vomiting subside. Solid food should begin with rice, cereal, bananas, potatoes, and lactose free and low fat products. The variety of foods can be expanded as the diarrhea subsides.
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