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Can Dehydration Cause Diarrhea? Nutritionist Says

Can dehydration cause diarrhoea

Dehydration, in simple terms, is characterized by a lack of adequate fluid and electrolytes in the body. It seems like a very general health problem that can be treated in a day or two. But the truth is, it is as serious a concern as any other health disorder.

The consequences of dehydration can be dangerous if not treated within time. Electrolytes and water levels within the body go hand-in-hand. If we lose water from the body we also lose electrolytes.

Dehydration can cause diarrhea. It is one of the most common and recurring outcomes of lack of proper fluids. Diarrhea is the leading cause of mortality among children in developing countries. 

What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is a disruption in the normal movement of water and electrolytes in the gut. This results in loose and watery stools, more frequently than normal. 

Electrolytes move via small channels or by tiny protein pumps in the gut cells. Water then moves by the process of osmosis from areas of lower to higher concentration. The electrolytes move water inside the body or can expel it into the gut. 

When the fluid enters the small intestine, almost 90% of water is reabsorbed to balance the hydration status of the body.

When this fluid balance fails to happen, dehydration ensues. This dehydration can further cause many health complications, the most initial being noticed is diarrhea.

Diarrhea and dehydration: What’s the connection?

Diarrhea is more like a symptom of dehydration than the cause. However, both can be side-effects of each other.  

Severe, acute diarrhea comes on suddenly and leads to even more water and electrolytes loss. Diarrhea is caused by increased secretion of fluid into the intestine and reduced absorption of fluid from the intestine.

During diarrhea, there is an increased loss of water and important electrolytes like sodium, chloride, potassium, etc.

Simply put, if the body is persistently devoid of major fluids and electrolytes for a long time, it will ultimately lead to diarrhea. 

According to studies done, the volume of fluid lost through the stools in 24 hours can vary from 5 ml/kg (near normal) to 200 ml/kg, or more.

 The total body sodium deficit in young children with severe dehydration due to diarrhea is usually about 70110 millimoles/liter of water deficit. 

Symptoms of diarrhea

There are various signs and symptoms our body experiences when we have diarrhea. These are-

  • Frequent loose, watery stools
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Bleeding
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness 

Diarrhea also brings with itself a great deal of dehydration, the symptoms of which can be noticed as-

  • Excessive thirst
  • Constipation
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headache
  • Decreased urination
  • Dry skin

All these symptoms need to be taken into account collectively while seeking treatment for diarrhea.

Causes of diarrhea other than dehydration

Diarrhea is not only limited to dehydration. There are numerous other causes associated with it. However, here one or the other linked implication would itself be dehydration.

 The most common causes of diarrhea other than dehydration are-

  • Bacterial infection in the gut 
  • Viral infections (mainly by rotavirus)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Celiac disorders
  • Food Intolerance
  • Gut inflammation due to spicy foods
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

Diagnosing diarrhea

In most cases, upon visiting a doctor, he or she asks you about your medical history and runs some physical and lab tests to determine the exact cause of your diarrhea.

These tests include-

  • Blood test
  • Stool test.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy

Treating dehydration-induced diarrhea

To prevent diarrhea, the foremost step is to prevent dehydration, the root cause itself. Here is how you can do it.

Prevention for children

  •  Fluids called oral rehydration solutions are one of the best choices. They contain important electrolytes required by the body in order to restore balance.
  • Energy drinks and fruit juices are helpful too, but they don’t provide the ideal balance of water, sugar, and salt. However, you can give these in moderation.
  • Bland foods with complex carbohydrates, lean meats, and fruits and vegetables are encouraged to be given to children to restore hydration.
  • Make sure you do not only give water to the child. It may lead to low blood sugar or sodium levels.

Prevention for elderly

  • An elderly person sick with diarrhea should try to drink at least 1.7 liters of fluid every 24 hours ( around 7-8 glasses of water).
  • Make changes to your diet. Rely more on a fiber-rich diet and water-rich fruits.
  • Manage related conditions like IBD or other GI disorders.
  • Maintain ‘wash’ hygiene

Prevention for pregnant women

  • Focus the most on your hydration. Drink lots of water.
  • Include sports drinks, fruit juices, caffeine-free beverages, broth soups, etc. in your diet. Watch out for the sugar and caffeine content in sports drinks.
  • ORS solutions may also work in the case of extreme dehydration.
  • Prefer a bland diet to restore the lost fluid and electrolytes. Some easy-to-go foods are- applesauce, banana, plain mashed potatoes, rice, etc.

When to see a doctor

If you experience the following while on the bouts of diarrhea, immediately visit your doctor-

  • Diarrhea lasting more than two days
  • Fever of 102 degrees F or higher along with diarrhea
  • Six or more loose stools in 24 hours
  • Severe pain in the abdomen
  • Bloody stools 
  • Diarrhea accompanied by frequent vomiting
  • Signs of severe dehydration

 If the home remedies and the natural ways do not work for you, the doctor gives you medical treatment options. The most common ones which are effective too are-

  • Antibiotics ( works in all the cases except virus causing diarrhea)
  • Replacing the fluids and salts with IV fluids to prevent stomach pain and vomiting
  • Adjusting your ongoing medications
  • Treating underlying health conditions like GI disorders

Bottom line

Dehydration and diarrhea hold a strong connection. Either of these can cause the other resulting in malnutrition and even death, in severe cases. 

Thus, it is important to maintain the right fluid intake practices and take charge of your body by choosing the right diet.

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