Diarrhea, the occurrence of loose watery stool, affects everyone periodically. Acute diarrhea describes a sudden onset that can occur due to viral infections, bacterial infections or parasites. Chronic diarrhea, defined by the Cleveland Clinic as three or more loose stools per day for more than one month, indicates the presence of a functional or inflammatory disorder of the bowel. Chronic diarrhea can cause effects in the body that can be serious and life-threatening.
The colon is the part of the large intestine between the cecum and the rectum and absorbs excess fluids from the partially digested food as it passes through the digestive tract. Disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn's disease, that interferes with the absorptive ability of the intestines cause chronic diarrhea. The loss of fluids results in dehydration, the condition that occurs when the body lacks enough fluid to function properly.
If left untreated, dehydration can become serious. Signs of dehydration include thirst, less frequent urination, dry skin, fatigue and dark colored urine, as described by the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. In children, parents can notice dehydration by the lack of tears when crying, a high fever, irritability and no we diapers in a 3-hour period. Mild dehydration can be treated with oral rehydration therapy that includes drinking plenty of liquids such as fruit juices, broths and rehydration solutions.
When the intestines fail to absorb fluids, electrolytes, or minerals, remain in the stool and are flushed out in the diarrhea. The body requires the right balance of electrolytes to maintain the chemistry of the blood and support organ functions and help in muscle actions, according to MedLine plus and the National Institutes of Health.
The main electrolytes found in the body include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, phosphate and carbonate. A low level of sodium, known as hyponatremia, can cause confusion, drowsiness, muscle weakness and seizures, as described by the Merck Manual. Hypokalemia, a low level of potassium, can affect the level of sugar in the blood as well as cause muscle weakness, fatigue and confusion. To ensure electrolytes remain in balance, those with chronic diarrhea need to take in electrolytes by drinking the broth and juices instead of just plain water.
The small intestine also functions to absorb nutrients. Malfunctions of the small intestine that result in chronic diarrhea can also cause malnutrition. The occurrence of chronic diarrhea has a cause and effect relationship with malnutrition, as described by research published by Kenneth Brown in "The Journal of Nutrition." Conditions of diarrhea inhibit the absorption of nutrients resulting in malnutrition. In addition, malnutrition increases the susceptibility for infections leading to diarrhea. Signs of malnutrition include fatigue, weakness, dizziness, dry skin, decaying teeth, poor growth and learning difficulties.
- The Cleveland Clinic: Acute Diarrhea
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Diarrhea
- MedLine Plus: Fluid and Electrolyte Balance
- Merck Manual: Problems with Electrolyte Balance
- “The Journal of Nutrition”: Diarrhea and Malnutrition
- Merck Manual: Diarrhea
- MayoClinic.com: Diarrhea
- The Nemours Foundation: Signs of Malnutrition