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What Are the Causes of Prolonged Diarrhea?

By Lindsay Boyers ; Updated August 14, 2017

Almost everyone has experienced a bout of diarrhea at some unfortunate point in his or her life. Occasional diarrhea is normal and may be a result of a spoiled dinner or a stomach bug. Prolonged diarrhea, which affects 3 to 5 percent of the population, according to an article published in “American Family Physician” in 2011, is a whole different ballgame. If you experience prolonged diarrhea, which by definition is loose stools that last for two to four weeks, contact your doctor to determine the cause.

Your Bowel May Be Irritated

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is the most common cause of chronic diarrhea in developed countries, according to an article published in “American Family Physician” in 2011. Irritable bowel syndrome is classified as a functional gastrointestinal disorder, which means that symptoms are consistently present, but no intestinal damage occurs. Other symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain, cramping and discomfort. The cause of IBS is not entirely understood, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, and treatment involves a combination of medications, nutritional intervention and the use of probiotics.

Your Bowel May Be Inflamed

Prolonged diarrhea may also occur as a result of inflammatory bowel disease, like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Although the early symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases look very similar to the symptoms of IBS, inflammatory bowel diseases differ from IBS because damage to the intestine can occur. The diarrhea associated with inflammatory bowel diseases is also often accompanied by blood or pus.

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You May Be Intolerant

Prolonged diarrhea is one of the most common symptoms of a food intolerance. In addition to diarrhea, you may also experience bloating, gas, diarrhea and abdominal pain. A food intolerance differs from an allergy in that the first causes a digestive response, whereas the second causes an immune system response. Symptoms of a food intolerance usually develop when the intestine is unable to properly break down and absorb a certain food. In some cases, a food intolerance causes the body to release chemicals into the bloodstream when it comes into contact with a specific food. The only way to treat the symptoms of a food intolerance is to completely avoid the food causing the issue. The most common food intolerances include gluten;lactose, the sugar in milk; and fructose, the sugar in fruit.

Your Medication May Be to Blame

The medication you’re taking may to be blame for your chronic diarrhea. Diarrhea is a side effect of certain medications, like antibiotics, laxatives, anti-cancer medications and proton pump inhibitors. Antacids that contain magnesium may also cause prolonged diarrhea. If you suspect your medication is causing your diarrhea, contact your doctor. He may able to switch your medication or change your dose to correct the side effects.

You May Have an Infection

Most gastrointestinal infections cause acute diarrhea, but some bacterial infections, like C. difficile and Campylobacter, and parasitic infections, like Giardia, become chronic. Chronic infections irritate the digestive tract, causing inflammation that can lead to prolonged diarrhea. Your doctor can diagnose a chronic infection with fecal testing.

Consider Your Thyroid

Prolonged diarrhea may also occur as a result of an overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism. When you have hyperthyroidism, your thyroid gland produces more thyroid hormone than your body needs. The excess hormone interferes with proper body functioning, causing diarrhea as well as nervousness, shakiness, weight loss, increased appetite, double vision, muscle weakness and rapid heartbeat. If you suspect that your thyroid gland may be functioning abnormally, ask your doctor to check your thyroid hormone levels.

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