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The Effects of Chronic Diarrhea

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 1. Chronic diarrhea can cause effects in the body that can be serious and life-threatening.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.


If left untreated, dehydration can become serious. Signs of dehydration include:

  • thirst
  • less frequent urination
  • dry skin
  • fatigue
  • dark colored urine
  • as described by the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse 2

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.

Electrolyte Imbalance

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The main electrolytes found in the body include:

  • sodium
  • potassium
  • calcium
  • magnesium
  • chloride
  • phosphate
  • carbonate

A low level of sodium, known as hyponatremia, can cause

  • confusion
  • drowsiness
  • muscle weakness
  • 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 5. 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 5. In addition, malnutrition increases the susceptibility for infections leading to diarrhea 5. Signs of malnutrition include:

  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • dizziness
  • dry skin
  • decaying teeth
  • poor growth
  • learning difficulties