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Diarrhea & Electrolyte Imbalance

author image Chelsea Flahive, RDN, LD
Chelsea Flahive is a registered dietitian nutritionist and licensed dietitian with a passion for health and wellness, weight management and disease prevention. She received a Bachelor of Science in human nutrition, foods and exercise from Virginia Tech and completed her dietetic internship through the University of Delaware. Flahive is completing a certificate of training in weight management through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Diarrhea & Electrolyte Imbalance
A man is holding his stomach. Photo Credit Sam-Stock/iStock/Getty Images

Diarrhea is the second most common reported illness in the United States. Bouts of diarrhea may be acute and last only one to two days, or the condition may be chronic, lasting four weeks or more. When you are suffering from diarrhea, the biggest concern is loss of fluids, which can lead to electrolyte imbalance, dehydration and unwanted weight loss.

Causes of Diarrhea

Bacterial infections, stress, medication and chronic disease may all lead to diarrhea. Food or water contaminated with campylobacter, salmonella, shigella or E. coli can cause bacterial diarrhea. Parasites may also cause diarrhea if food or water has been infected with Giardia Iamblia or cryptosporidium. Medications such as antibiotics, drugs that treat cancer and antacids containing magnesium may cause loose stools as well. In addition, diarrhea may be a symptom of another problem, such as irritable bowl syndrome, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease or ulcerative colitis.

Dangers of Diarrhea

Diarrhea is loose, watery stool occurring three or more times per day. You may also have cramps, nausea or a fever. Loose stool contains more water and nutrients than normal, solid stools and causes the body to rapidly lose fluids and electrolytes. This loss can lead to electrolyte imbalance, dehydration and, in some cases, malnutrition. If not treated, dehydration can damage organs and lead to shock or coma.

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Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance

Electrolytes are minerals in the body that regulate many body functions, such as nerve and muscle function and bone development. They also maintain normal heartbeat, blood pressure and fluid balance. Calcium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and sodium are all electrolytes. During prolonged fluid loss, which occurs during bouts of diarrhea, these electrolytes may be found in higher or lower levels than normal and cause a variety of symptoms. You may experience muscle spasms, weakness, twitching, numbness, confusion or lethargy. If your electrolyte imbalance is not corrected, it could lead to bone disorders, changes in blood pressure, nervous system disorders, seizures or irregular heartbeat.

Treating Diarrhea

In most cases, diarrhea can be treated by replacing fluids and electrolytes. Although important in rehydration, water does not contain electrolytes. Be sure to drink fluids such as fruit juices, sports drinks and broth to correct electrolyte imbalances. Over-the-counter medications can treat diarrhea in adults. If a bacterial infection has caused the diarrhea, however, over-the-counter medications won’t help, and you may need a doctor to prescribe an antibiotic. Children should not be given medications to treat diarrhea without the consent of your health care provider.

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