Acute Diarrhea in Adults


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Am Fam Physician. 2014 Feb 1;89(3):180-189.

This clinical content conforms to AAFP criteria for continuing medical education (CME). See CME Quiz Questions.

  Patient information: See related handout on diarrhea, written by the authors of this article.

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.

Acute diarrhea in adults is a common problem encountered by family physicians. The most common etiology is viral gastroenteritis, a self-limited disease. Increases in travel, comorbidities, and foodborne illness lead to more bacteria-related cases of acute diarrhea. A history and physical examination evaluating for risk factors and signs of inflammatory diarrhea and/or severe dehydration can direct any needed testing and treatment. Most patients do not require laboratory workup, and routine stool cultures are not recommended. Treatment focuses on preventing and treating dehydration. Diagnostic investigation should be reserved for patients with severe dehydration or illness, persistent fever, bloody stool, or immunosuppression, and for cases of suspected nosocomial infection or outbreak. Oral rehydration therapy with early refeeding is the preferred treatment for dehydration. Antimotility agents should be avoided in patients with bloody diarrhea, but loperamide/simethicone may improve symptoms in patients with watery diarrhea. Probiotic use may shorten the duration of illness. When used appropriately, antibiotics are effective in the treatment of shigellosis, campylobacteriosis, Clostridium difficile, traveler's diarrhea, and protozoal infections. Prevention of acute diarrhea is promoted through adequate hand washing, safe food preparation, access to clean water, and vaccinations.

Acute diarrhea is defined as stool with increased water content, volume, or frequency that lasts less than 14 days.1 Diarrheal illness accounts for 2.5 million deaths per year worldwide.2 In the United States, an estimated 48 million foodborne diarrheal illnesses occur annually, resulting in more than 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.3,4 In the developing world, infectious causes of acute diarrhea are largely related to contaminated food and water supplies.5 In the developed world, technological progress and an increase in mass production of food have paradoxically contributed to the persistence of foodborne illness, despite higher standards of food production.6

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SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Clinical recommendationEvidence ratingReferences

In patients with acute diarrhea, stool cultures should be reserved for grossly bloody stool, severe dehydration, signs of inflammatory disease, symptoms lasting more than three to seven days, immunosuppression, and suspected nosocomial infections.

C

25, 26

Testing for Clostridium difficile toxins A and B should be performed in patients who develop unexplained diarrhea after three days of hospitalization.

C

25, 27

Routine testing for ova and parasites in acute diarrhea is not necessary in developed countries, unless the patient is in a high-risk group (i.e., diarrhea lasting more than seven days, especially if associated with infants in day care or travel to mountainous regions; diarrhea in patients with AIDS or men who have sex with men; community waterborne outbreaks; or bloody diarrhea with few fecal leukocytes).

C

11, 29

The first step to treating acute diarrhea is rehydration, preferably oral rehydration.

C

1

Combination loperamide/simethicone may provide faster and more complete relief of acute nonspecific diarrhea and gas-related discomfort than either medication alone.

B

39

Antibiotics (usually a quinolone) reduce the duration and severity of traveler's diarrhea.

A

42


A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence rating system, go to http://www.aafp.org/afpsort.

SORT: KEY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Clinical recommendationEvidence ratingReferences

In patients with acute diarrhea, stool cultures should be reserved for grossly bloody stool, severe dehydration, signs of inflammatory disease, symptoms lasting more than three to seven days, immunosuppression, and suspected nosocomial infections.

C

25, 26

Testing for Clostridium difficile toxins A and B should be performed in patients who develop unexplained diarrhea after three days of hospitalization.

C

25, 27

Routine testing for ova and parasites in acute diarrhea is not necessary in developed countries, unless the patient is in a high-risk group (i.e., diarrhea lasting more than seven days, especially if associated with infants in day care or travel to mountainous regions; diarrhea in patients with AIDS or men who have sex with men; community waterborne outbreaks; or bloody diarrhea with few fecal leukocytes).

C

11, 29

The first step to treating acute diarrhea is rehydration, preferably oral rehydration.

C

1

Combination loperamide/simethicone may provide faster and more complete relief of acute nonspecific diarrhea and gas-related discomfort than either medication alone.

B

39

Antibiotics (usually a quinolone) reduce the duration and severity of traveler's diarrhea.

A

42


A = consistent, good-quality patient-oriented evidence; B = inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence; C = consensus, disease-oriented evidence, usual practice, expert opinion, or case series. For information about the SORT evidence rating system, go to http://www.aafp.org/afpsort.

Differential Diagnosis

Infectious causes of acute diarrhea include viruses, bacteria, and, less often, parasites. Noninfectious causes include medication adverse effects, acute abdominal processes, gastroenterologic disease, and endocrine disease.

Clinically, acute infectious diarrhea is classified into two pathophysiologic syndromes, commonly referred to as noninflammatory (mostly viral, milder disease) and inflammatory (mostly invasive or with toxin-producing bacteria, more severe disease).7,8  Table 1 compares noninflammatory and inflammatory acute infectious diarrhea.7,8

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Table 1.

Noninflammatory vs. Inflammatory Diarrheal Syndromes

FactorNoninflammatoryInflammatory

Etiology

Usually viral, but can be bacterial or parasitic

Generally invasive or toxin-producing bacteria

Pathophysiology

More likely to promote intestinal secretion without significant disruption in the intestinal mucosa

More likely to disrupt mucosal integrity, which may lead to tissue invasion and destruction

History and examination findings

Nausea, vomiting; normothermia; abdominal cramping; larger stool volume; nonbloody, watery stool

Fever, abdominal pain, tenesmus, smaller stool volume, bloody stool

Laboratory findings

Absence of fecal leukocytes

Presence of fecal leukocytes

Common pathogens

Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli, Clostridium perfringens, Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, Rotavirus, Norovirus, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Vibrio cholerae

Salmonella (non-Typhi species), Shigella, Campylobacter, Shiga toxin–producing E. coli, enteroinvasive E. coli, Clostridium difficile, Entamoeba histolytica, Yersinia

Other

Generally milder disease

Generally more severe disease

Severe fluid loss can still occur, especially in malnourished patients


Information from references 7 and 8.

Table 1.

Noninflammatory vs. Inflammatory Diarrheal Syndromes

FactorNoninflammatoryInflammatory

Etiology

Usually viral, but can be bacterial or parasitic

Generally invasive or toxin-producing bacteria

Pathophysiology

More likely to promote intestinal secretion without significant disruption in the intestinal mucosa

More likely to disrupt mucosal integrity, which may lead to tissue invasion and destruction

History and examination findings

Nausea, vomiting; normothermia; abdominal cramping; larger stool volume; nonbloody, watery stool

Fever, abdominal pain, tenesmus, smaller stool volume, bloody stool

Laboratory findings

Absence of fecal leukocytes

Presence of fecal leukocytes

Common pathogens

Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli, Clostridium perfringens, Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, Rotavirus, Norovirus, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Vibrio cholerae

Salmonella (non-Typhi species), Shigella, Campylobacter, Shiga toxin–producing E. coli, enteroinvasive E. coli, Clostridium difficile, Entamoeba histolytica, Yersinia

Other

Generally milder disease

Generally more severe disease

Severe fluid loss can still occur, especially in malnourished patients


Information from references 7 and 8.

Viral infections are the most common cause of acute diarrhea.9 Bacterial infections are more often associated with travel, comorbidities, and foodborne illness. When a specific organism is identified, the most common causes of acute diarrhea in the United States are Salmonella, Campylobacter, Shigella, and Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli (enterohemorrhagic E. coli).10 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a comprehensive list of foodborne illnesses at http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/diseases.

History and Physical Examination

HISTORY

The onset, duration, severity, and frequency of diarrhea should be noted, with particular attention to stool character (e.g., watery, bloody, mucus-filled, purulent, bilious). The patient should be evaluated for signs of dehydration, including decreased urine output, thirst, dizziness, and change in mental status. Vomiting is more suggestive of viral illness or illness caused by ingestion of a preformed bacterial toxin. Symptoms more suggestive of invasive bacterial (inflammatory) diarrhea include fever, tenesmus, and grossly bloody stool.11

A food and travel history is helpful to evaluate potential exposures. Children in day care, nursing home residents, food handlers, and recently hospitalized patients are at high risk of infectious diarrheal illness. Pregnant women have a 12-fold increased risk of listeriosis,12 which is primarily contracted by consuming cold meats, soft cheeses, and raw milk.13 Recent sick contacts and use of antibiotics and other medications should be noted in patients with acute diarrhea. Sexual practices that include receptive anal and oral-anal contact increase the possibility of direct rectal inoculation and fecal-oral transmission.

The history should also include gastroenterologic disease or surgery; endocrine disease; radiation to the pelvis; and factors that increase the risk of immunosuppression, including human immunodeficiency virus infection, long-term steroid use, chemotherapy, and immunoglobulin A deficiency. History findings associated with causes of diarrhea are summarized in Table 2,1,7,8,14,15  and clinical features by pathogen are summarized in Table 3.1,14

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Table 2.

Clues to the Diagnosis of Acute Diarrhea

HistoryPotential pathogen/etiology

Afebrile, abdominal pain with bloody diarrhea

Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli

Bloody stools

Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, Shiga toxin–producing E. coli, Clostridium difficile, Entamoeba histolytica, Yersinia

Camping, consumption of untreated water

Giardia

Consumption of food commonly associated with foodborne illness

Fried rice

Bacillus cereus

Raw ground beef or seed sprouts

Shiga toxin–producing E. coli (e.g., E. coli O157:H7)

Raw milk

Salmonella, Campylobacter, Shiga toxin–producing E. coli, Listeria

Seafood, especially raw or undercooked shellfish

Vibrio cholerae, Vibrio parahaemolyticus

Undercooked beef, pork, or poultry

Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, Salmonella, Listeria (beef, pork, poultry), Shiga toxin–producing E. coli (beef and pork), B. cereus (beef and pork), Yersinia (beef and pork), Campylobacter (poultry)

Exposure to day care centers

Rotavirus, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella

Fecal-oral sexual contact

Shigella, Salmonella, Campylobacter, protozoal disease

Hospital admission

C. difficile, treatment adverse effect

Human immunodeficiency virus infection, immunosuppression

Cryptosporidium, Microsporida, Isospora, Cytomegalovirus, Mycobacterium aviumintracellulare complex, Listeria

Medical conditions associated with diarrhea

Endocrine: Hyperthyroidism, adrenocortical insufficiency, carcinoid tumors, medullary thyroid cancer

Gastrointestinal: Ulcerative colitis, Crohn disease, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, lactose intolerance, ischemic colitis, colorectal cancer, short bowel syndrome, malabsorption, gastrinoma, VIPoma, bowel obstruction, constipation with overflow

Other: Appendicitis, diverticulitis, human immunodeficiency virus infection, systemic infections, amyloidosis, adnexitis

Medications or other therapies associated with diarrhea

Antibiotics (especially broad-spectrum), laxatives, antacids (magnesium- or calcium-based), chemotherapy, colchicine, pelvic radiation therapy

Less common: Proton pump inhibitors, mannitol, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, cholesterol-lowering medications, lithium

Persistent diarrhea with weight loss

Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora

Pregnancy

Listeria

Recent antibiotic use

C. difficile

Receptive anal intercourse, with or without rectal pain or proctitis

Herpes simplex virus infection, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis

Rectal pain or proctitis

Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, E. histolytica, C. difficile, Giardia

Rice-water stools

V. cholerae

Several persons with common food exposure have acute onset of symptoms

Food poisoning with preformed toxins

Onset of symptoms within 6 hours: Staphylococcus, B. cereus (typically causes vomiting)

Onset of symptoms within 8 to 16 hours: C. perfringens type A (typically causes diarrhea)

Travel to a developing country

Enterotoxigenic E. coli is most common

Many other pathogens (e.g., Shigella, Salmonella, E. histolytica, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, enteric viruses) are possible because of poorly cleaned or cooked food, or fecal contamination of food or water


Information from references 1, 7, 8, 14, and 15.

Table 2.

Clues to the Diagnosis of Acute Diarrhea

HistoryPotential pathogen/etiology

Afebrile, abdominal pain with bloody diarrhea

Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli

Bloody stools

Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, Shiga toxin–producing E. coli, Clostridium difficile, Entamoeba histolytica, Yersinia

Camping, consumption of untreated water

Giardia

Consumption of food commonly associated with foodborne illness

Fried rice

Bacillus cereus

Raw ground beef or seed sprouts

Shiga toxin–producing E. coli (e.g., E. coli O157:H7)

Raw milk

Salmonella, Campylobacter, Shiga toxin–producing E. coli, Listeria

Seafood, especially raw or undercooked shellfish

Vibrio cholerae, Vibrio parahaemolyticus

Undercooked beef, pork, or poultry

Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, Salmonella, Listeria (beef, pork, poultry), Shiga toxin–producing E. coli (beef and pork), B. cereus (beef and pork), Yersinia (beef and pork), Campylobacter (poultry)

Exposure to day care centers

Rotavirus, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella

Fecal-oral sexual contact

Shigella, Salmonella, Campylobacter, protozoal disease

Hospital admission

C. difficile, treatment adverse effect

Human immunodeficiency virus infection, immunosuppression

Cryptosporidium, Microsporida, Isospora, Cytomegalovirus, Mycobacterium aviumintracellulare complex, Listeria

Medical conditions associated with diarrhea

Endocrine: Hyperthyroidism, adrenocortical insufficiency, carcinoid tumors, medullary thyroid cancer

Gastrointestinal: Ulcerative colitis, Crohn disease, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, lactose intolerance, ischemic colitis, colorectal cancer, short bowel syndrome, malabsorption, gastrinoma, VIPoma, bowel obstruction, constipation with overflow

Other: Appendicitis, diverticulitis, human immunodeficiency virus infection, systemic infections, amyloidosis, adnexitis

Medications or other therapies associated with diarrhea

Antibiotics (especially broad-spectrum), laxatives, antacids (magnesium- or calcium-based), chemotherapy, colchicine, pelvic radiation therapy

Less common: Proton pump inhibitors, mannitol, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, cholesterol-lowering medications, lithium

Persistent diarrhea with weight loss

Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora

Pregnancy

Listeria

Recent antibiotic use

C. difficile

Receptive anal intercourse, with or without rectal pain or proctitis

Herpes simplex virus infection, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis

Rectal pain or proctitis

Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, E. histolytica, C. difficile, Giardia

Rice-water stools

V. cholerae

Several persons with common food exposure have acute onset of symptoms

Food poisoning with preformed toxins

Onset of symptoms within 6 hours: Staphylococcus, B. cereus (typically causes vomiting)

Onset of symptoms within 8 to 16 hours: C. perfringens type A (typically causes diarrhea)

Travel to a developing country

Enterotoxigenic E. coli is most common

Many other pathogens (e.g., Shigella, Salmonella, E. histolytica, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, enteric viruses) are possible because of poorly cleaned or cooked food, or fecal contamination of food or water


Information from references 1, 7, 8, 14, and 15.

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Table 3.

Clinical Features of Acute Diarrhea Caused by Select Pathogens

PathogenFeverAbdominal painNausea, vomiting, or bothFecal evidence of inflammationBloody stoolHeme-positive stools

Bacterial

Campylobacter

Common

Common

Occurs

Common

Occurs

Variable

Clostridium difficile

Occurs

Occurs

Not common

Common

Occurs

Occurs

Salmonella

Common

Common

Occurs

Common

Occurs

Variable

Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli

Not common

Common

Occurs

Not common

Common

Common

Shigella

Common

Common

Common

Common

Occurs

Variable

Vibrio

Variable

Variable

Variable

Variable

Variable

Variable

Yersinia

Common

Common

Occurs

Occurs

Occurs

Occurs

Parasitic

Cryptosporidium

Variable

Variable

Occurs

None to mild

Not common

Not common

Cyclospora

Variable

Variable

Occurs

Not common

Not common

Not common

Entamoeba histolytica

Occurs

Occurs

Variable

Variable

Variable

Common

Giardia

Not common

Common

Occurs

Not common

Not common

Not common

Viral

Norovirus

Variable

Common

Common

Not common

Not common

Not common


Information from references 1 and 14.

Table 3.

Clinical Features of Acute Diarrhea Caused by Select Pathogens

PathogenFeverAbdominal painNausea, vomiting, or bothFecal evidence of inflammationBloody stoolHeme-positive stools

Bacterial

Campylobacter

Common

Common

Occurs

Common

Occurs

Variable

Clostridium difficile

Occurs

Occurs

Not common

Common

Occurs

Occurs

Salmonella

Common

Common

Occurs

Common

Occurs

Variable

Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli

Not common

Common

Occurs

Not common

Common

Common

Shigella

Common

Common

Common

Common

Occurs

Variable

Vibrio

Variable

Variable

Variable

Variable

Variable

Variable

Yersinia

Common

Common

Occurs

Occurs

Occurs

Occurs

Parasitic

Cryptosporidium

Variable

Variable

Occurs

None to mild

Not common

Not common

Cyclospora

Variable

Variable

Occurs

Not common

Not common

Not common

Entamoeba histolytica

Occurs

Occurs

Variable

Variable

Variable

Common

Giardia

Not common

Common

Occurs

Not common

Not common

Not common

Viral

Norovirus

Variable

Common

Common

Not common

Not common

Not common


Information from references 1 and 14.

PHYSICAL EXAMINATION

The primary goal of the physical examination is to assess the patient's degree of dehydration. Generally ill appearance, dry mucous membranes, delayed capillary refill time, increased heart rate, and abnormal orthostatic vital signs can be helpful in identifying more severe dehydration. Fever is more suggestive of inflammatory diarrhea. The abdominal examination is important to assess for pain and acute abdominal processes. A rectal examination may be helpful in assessing for blood, rectal tenderness, and stool consistency.

Diagnostic Testing

Because most watery diarrhea is self-limited, testing is usually not indicated.1,16 In general, specific diagnostic investigation can be reserved for patients with severe dehydration, more severe illness, persistent fever, bloody stool, or immunosuppression, and for cases of suspected nosocomial infection or outbreak.

OCCULT BLOOD

It is unclear how much fecal occult blood testing affects pretest probability. Nevertheless, it is a rapid and inexpensive test, and when tests are positive for fecal occult blood in conjunction with the presence of fecal leukocytes or lactoferrin, the diagnosis of inflammatory diarrhea is more common.17 Of note, fecal occult blood testing is 71% sensitive and 79% specific for inflammatory diarrhea in developed countries, but the sensitivity drops to 44% and specificity to 72% in developing countries.18

LEUKOCYTES AND LACTOFERRIN

Testing stool for leukocytes to screen for inflammatory diarrhea poses several challenges, including the handling of specimens and the standardization of laboratory processing and interpretation. There is a wide variability in sensitivity and specificity. Therefore, this testing has fallen out of favor.18

Lactoferrin is a marker for leukocytes that is released by damaged or deteriorating cells, and increases in the setting of bacterial infections.19 Commercially available immunoassay testing kits are a more precise and less variable method for specimen analysis compared with fecal leukocytes, with a sensitivity greater than 90% and a specificity greater than 70%.20 Although there is some debate as to whether fecal lactoferrin is clearly superior to fecal leukocytes, the speed and simplicity of lactoferrin testing make it the preferred method to screen for the presence of leukocytes when indicated.21

STOOL CULTURES

The indiscriminate use of stool cultures in the evaluation of acute diarrhea is inefficient (results are positive in only 1.6% to 5.6% of cases)1 and expensive, with an estimated cost of $900 to $1,200 per positive stool culture.22 Obtaining cultures only in patients with screening tests positive for leukocytes decreases the cost to $150 per positive culture.23 Obtaining cultures only in patients with grossly bloody stools increases the yield for positive culture results to greater than 30%.24

Although there is no consensus on which patients need a culture, it is reasonable to perform a culture if the patient has grossly bloody stool, severe dehydration, signs of inflammatory disease, symptoms lasting more than three to seven days, or immunosuppression.25,26 Cultures are often obtained for traveler's diarrhea; however, empiric treatment is also an option.1,11 In the hospital setting, cultures should be reserved for the reasons listed above or if diarrhea begins more than three days after admission and there has been a nosocomial outbreak, the patient has human immunodeficiency virus infection or neutropenia, or the patient is older than 65 years with significant comorbidity (e.g., end-stage liver, renal, or pulmonary disease; leukemia hemiparesis caused by cardiovascular accident; inflammatory bowel disease).25

CLOSTRIDIUM DIFFICILE TESTING

Testing for Clostridium difficile toxins A and B is recommended for patients who develop unexplained diarrhea after three days of hospitalization; the test will be positive in 15% to 20% of these patients.25,27 Furthermore, the risk of contracting C. difficile infection increases by seven to 10 times throughout any period of antibiotic treatment and for the first month after antibiotic discontinuation, and this risk is still three times higher in the second and third months after antibiotic discontinuation.28 Therefore, testing for C. difficile toxins is also suggested in patients who develop unexplained diarrhea while using antibiotics or within three months of discontinuing antibiotics. C. difficile testing can be considered in certain populations with significant comorbidities, including older persons and those who are immunocompromised.

OVA AND PARASITES

Routine analysis for ova and parasites in patients with acute diarrhea is not cost-effective, especially in developed countries.29 Indications for ova and parasite testing include persistent diarrhea lasting more than seven days, especially if associated with infants in day care or travel to mountainous regions; diarrhea in persons with AIDS or men who have sex with men; community waterborne outbreaks; or bloody diarrhea with few fecal leukocytes.11 The benefit of sending multiple samples to increase the test yield is debatable.

ENDOSCOPY

The role of endoscopy in the diagnosis and management of acute diarrhea is limited. Endoscopic evaluation may be considered if the diagnosis is unclear after routine blood and stool tests, if empiric therapy is ineffective, or if symptoms persist.30 Specifically, lower endoscopy with colonic biopsy and culture can be helpful in patients with diarrhea and suspected tuberculosis or diffuse colitis (as in C. difficile colitis) and in determining noninfectious causes of acute diarrhea, such as inflammatory bowel disease, ischemic colitis, enteropathy related to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug use, and cancer.31

Treatment

Figure 1 provides an algorithm for the treatment of acute diarrhea.1,14,20

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Treatment of Acute Diarrhea

Figure 1.

Algorithm for the treatment of acute diarrhea.

Information from references 1,14, and 20.

Treatment of Acute Diarrhea


Figure 1.

Algorithm for the treatment of acute diarrhea.

Information from references 1,14, and 20.

REHYDRATION THERAPY

The first step to treating acute diarrhea is rehydration, preferably oral rehydration.1 The accumulated fluid deficit (calculated roughly as the difference between the patient's normal weight and his or her weight at presentation with diarrheal illness) must first be addressed. Next, the focus should turn to the replacement of ongoing losses and the continuation of maintenance fluids. An oral rehydration solution (ORS) must contain a mixture of salt and glucose in combination with water to best use the intestine's sodium-glucose coupled cellular transport mechanism.

In 2002, the World Health Organization endorsed an ORS with reduced osmolarity (250 mOsm per L or less compared with the prior standard of 311 mOsm per L). The reduced osmolarity ORS decreases stool outputs, episodes of emesis, and the need for intravenous rehydration,32 without increasing hyponatremia, compared with the standard ORS.33 A reduced osmolarity ORS can be roughly duplicated by mixing 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 6 teaspoons of sugar, and 1 liter of water. If oral rehydration is not feasible, intravenous rehydration may be necessary.

FEEDING

Early refeeding decreases intestinal permeability caused by infections, reduces illness duration, and improves nutritional outcomes.34,35 This is particularly important in developing countries where underlying preexisting malnutrition is often a factor. Although the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) and the avoidance of dairy are commonly recommended, supporting data for these interventions are limited. Instructing patients to refrain from eating solid food for 24 hours also does not appear useful.36

ANTIDIARRHEAL MEDICATIONS

The antimotility agent loperamide (Imodium) may reduce the duration of diarrhea by as much as one day and increase the likelihood of clinical cure at 24 and 48 hours when given with antibiotics for traveler's diarrhea.37,38 A loperamide/simethicone combination has demonstrated faster and more complete relief of acute nonspecific diarrhea and gas-related discomfort compared with either medication alone.39

Loperamide may cause dangerous prolongation of illness in patients with some forms of bloody or inflammatory diarrhea and, therefore, should be restricted to patients with nonbloody stool.40 The antisecretory drug bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) is a safe alternative in patients with fever and inflammatory diarrhea. There is inadequate evidence to recommend the use of the absorbents kaolin/pectin, activated charcoal, or attapulgite (no longer available in the United States). The antisecretory drug racecadotril, widely used in Europe but unavailable in the United States, appears to be more tolerable and as effective as loperamide.41

ANTIBIOTIC THERAPY

Because acute diarrhea is most often self-limited and caused by viruses, routine antibiotic use is not recommended for most adults with nonsevere, watery diarrhea. Additionally, the overuse of antibiotics can lead to resistance (e.g., Campylobacter), harmful eradication of normal flora, prolongation of illness (e.g., superinfection with C. difficile), prolongation of carrier state (e.g., delayed excretion of Salmonella), induction of Shiga toxins (e.g., from Shiga toxin–producing E. coli), and increased cost.

However, when used appropriately, antibiotics are effective for shigellosis, campylobacteriosis, C. difficile, traveler's diarrhea, and protozoal infections. Antibiotic treatment of traveler's diarrhea (usually a quinolone) is associated with decreased severity of illness and a two-or three-day reduction in duration of illness.1,42 If the patient's clinical presentation suggests the possibility of Shiga toxin–producing E. coli (e.g., bloody diarrhea, history of eating seed sprouts or rare ground beef, proximity to an outbreak), antibiotic use should be avoided because it may increase the risk of hemolytic uremic syndrome.43 Conservative management without antibiotic treatment is less successful for diarrhea lasting more than 10 to 14 days, and testing and treatment for protozoal infections should be considered.1  Antibiotics may be considered in patients who are older than 65 years, immunocompromised, severely ill, or septic. Table 4 summarizes antibiotic therapy for acute diarrhea.1,14,16,44,45

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Table 4.

Summary of Antibiotic Therapy for Acute Diarrhea

OrganismTherapy effectivenessPreferred medicationAlternative medicationsComments

Bacterial

Campylobacter

Proven in dysentery and sepsis, possibly effective in enteritis

Azithromycin (Zithromax), 500 mg once per day for 3 to 5 days

Erythromycin, 500 mg four times per day for 3 to 5 days

Consider prolonged treatment if the patient is immunocompromised

Ciprofloxacin (Cipro), 500 mg twice per day for 5 to7 days

Clostridium difficile

Proven

Metronidazole (Flagyl), 500 mg three times per day for 10 days

Vancomycin, 125 mg four times per day for 10 days

If an antimicrobial agent is causing the diarrhea, it should be discontinued if possible

Enteropathogenic/enteroinvasive Escherichia coli

Possible

Ciprofloxacin, 500 mg twice per day for 3 days

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 3 days

Enterotoxigenic E. coli

Proven

Ciprofloxacin, 500 mg twice per day for 3 days

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 3 days

Enterotoxigenic E. coli is the most common cause of traveler's diarrhea

Azithromycin, 500 mg per day for 3 days

Salmonella, non-Typhi species

Doubtful in enteritis; proven in severe infection, sepsis, or dysentery

Options for severe disease: Ciprofloxacin, 500 mg twice per day for 5 to 7 days

In addition to patients with severe disease, it is appropriate to treat patients younger than 12 months or older than 50 years, and patients with a prosthesis, valvular heart disease, severe atherosclerosis, malignancy, or uremia

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 5 to 7 days

Azithromycin, 500 mg per day for 5 to 7 days

Patients who are immunocompromised should be treated for 14 days

Shiga toxin–producing E. coli

Controversial

No treatment

No treatment

The role of antibiotics is unclear; they are generally avoided because of their association with hemolytic uremic syndrome

Antimotility agents should be avoided

Shigella

Proven in dysentery

Ciprofloxacin, 500 mg twice per day for 3 days, or 2-g single dose

Azithromycin, 500 mg twice per day for 3 days

Use of TMP/SMX is limited because of resistance

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 5 days

Patients who are immunocompromised should be treated for 7 to 10 days

Ceftriaxone (Rocephin), 2- to 4-g single dose

Vibrio cholerae

Proven

Doxycycline, 300-mg single dose

Azithromycin, 1-g single dose

Doxycycline and tetracycline are not recommended in children because of possible tooth discoloration

Tetracycline, 500 mg four times per day for 3 days

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 3 days

Yersinia

Not needed in mild disease or enteritis, proven in severe disease or bacteremia

Options for severe disease:

Doxycycline combined with an aminoglycoside

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 5 days

Ciprofloxacin, 500 mg twice per day for 7 to 10 days

Protozoal

Cryptosporidium

Possible

Therapy may not be necessary in immunocompetent patients with mild disease or in patients with AIDS who have a CD4 cell count greater than 150 cells per mm3

Option for severe disease: Nitazoxanide (Alinia), 500 mg twice per day for 3 days (may offer longer treatment for refractory cases in patients with AIDS)

Highly active antiretroviral therapy, which achieves immune reconstitution, is adequate to eradicate intestinal disease in patients with AIDS

Cyclospora or Isospora

Proven

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 7 to 10 days

AIDS or immunosuppression: TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice to four times per day for 10 to 14 days, then three times weekly for maintenance

Entamoeba histolytica

Proven

Metronidazole, 750 mg three times per day for 5 to 10 days, plus paromomycin, 25 to 35 mg per kg per day in 3 divided doses for 5 to 10 days

Tinidazole (Tindamax), 2 g per day for 3 days, plus paromomycin, 25 to 35 mg per kg per day in 3 divided doses for 5 to 10 days

If the patient has severe disease or extraintestinal infection, including hepatic abscess, serology will be positive

Giardia

Proven

Metronidazole, 250 to 750 mg three times per day for 7 to 10 days

Tinidazole, 2-g single dose

Relapses may occur

Microsporida

Proven

Albendazole (Albenza), 400 mg twice per day for 3 weeks

Highly active antiretroviral therapy, which achieves immune reconstitution, is adequate to eradicate intestinal disease in patients with AIDS


DS = double strength; TMP/SMX = trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole.

Information from references 1, 14, 16, 44, and 45.

Table 4.

Summary of Antibiotic Therapy for Acute Diarrhea

OrganismTherapy effectivenessPreferred medicationAlternative medicationsComments

Bacterial

Campylobacter

Proven in dysentery and sepsis, possibly effective in enteritis

Azithromycin (Zithromax), 500 mg once per day for 3 to 5 days

Erythromycin, 500 mg four times per day for 3 to 5 days

Consider prolonged treatment if the patient is immunocompromised

Ciprofloxacin (Cipro), 500 mg twice per day for 5 to7 days

Clostridium difficile

Proven

Metronidazole (Flagyl), 500 mg three times per day for 10 days

Vancomycin, 125 mg four times per day for 10 days

If an antimicrobial agent is causing the diarrhea, it should be discontinued if possible

Enteropathogenic/enteroinvasive Escherichia coli

Possible

Ciprofloxacin, 500 mg twice per day for 3 days

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 3 days

Enterotoxigenic E. coli

Proven

Ciprofloxacin, 500 mg twice per day for 3 days

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 3 days

Enterotoxigenic E. coli is the most common cause of traveler's diarrhea

Azithromycin, 500 mg per day for 3 days

Salmonella, non-Typhi species

Doubtful in enteritis; proven in severe infection, sepsis, or dysentery

Options for severe disease: Ciprofloxacin, 500 mg twice per day for 5 to 7 days

In addition to patients with severe disease, it is appropriate to treat patients younger than 12 months or older than 50 years, and patients with a prosthesis, valvular heart disease, severe atherosclerosis, malignancy, or uremia

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 5 to 7 days

Azithromycin, 500 mg per day for 5 to 7 days

Patients who are immunocompromised should be treated for 14 days

Shiga toxin–producing E. coli

Controversial

No treatment

No treatment

The role of antibiotics is unclear; they are generally avoided because of their association with hemolytic uremic syndrome

Antimotility agents should be avoided

Shigella

Proven in dysentery

Ciprofloxacin, 500 mg twice per day for 3 days, or 2-g single dose

Azithromycin, 500 mg twice per day for 3 days

Use of TMP/SMX is limited because of resistance

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 5 days

Patients who are immunocompromised should be treated for 7 to 10 days

Ceftriaxone (Rocephin), 2- to 4-g single dose

Vibrio cholerae

Proven

Doxycycline, 300-mg single dose

Azithromycin, 1-g single dose

Doxycycline and tetracycline are not recommended in children because of possible tooth discoloration

Tetracycline, 500 mg four times per day for 3 days

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 3 days

Yersinia

Not needed in mild disease or enteritis, proven in severe disease or bacteremia

Options for severe disease:

Doxycycline combined with an aminoglycoside

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 5 days

Ciprofloxacin, 500 mg twice per day for 7 to 10 days

Protozoal

Cryptosporidium

Possible

Therapy may not be necessary in immunocompetent patients with mild disease or in patients with AIDS who have a CD4 cell count greater than 150 cells per mm3

Option for severe disease: Nitazoxanide (Alinia), 500 mg twice per day for 3 days (may offer longer treatment for refractory cases in patients with AIDS)

Highly active antiretroviral therapy, which achieves immune reconstitution, is adequate to eradicate intestinal disease in patients with AIDS

Cyclospora or Isospora

Proven

TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice per day for 7 to 10 days

AIDS or immunosuppression: TMP/SMX DS, 160/800 mg twice to four times per day for 10 to 14 days, then three times weekly for maintenance

Entamoeba histolytica

Proven

Metronidazole, 750 mg three times per day for 5 to 10 days, plus paromomycin, 25 to 35 mg per kg per day in 3 divided doses for 5 to 10 days

Tinidazole (Tindamax), 2 g per day for 3 days, plus paromomycin, 25 to 35 mg per kg per day in 3 divided doses for 5 to 10 days

If the patient has severe disease or extraintestinal infection, including hepatic abscess, serology will be positive

Giardia

Proven

Metronidazole, 250 to 750 mg three times per day for 7 to 10 days

Tinidazole, 2-g single dose

Relapses may occur

Microsporida

Proven

Albendazole (Albenza), 400 mg twice per day for 3 weeks

Highly active antiretroviral therapy, which achieves immune reconstitution, is adequate to eradicate intestinal disease in patients with AIDS


DS = double strength; TMP/SMX = trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole.

Information from references 1, 14, 16, 44, and 45.

PROBIOTICS

Probiotics are thought to work by stimulating the immune system and competing for binding sites on intestinal epithelial cells. Their use in children with acute diarrhea is associated with reduced severity and duration of illness (an average of about one less day of illness).46 Although many species are generally categorized as probiotics, even closely related strains may have different clinical effects. Effects of strain-specific probiotics need to be verified in adult studies before a specific evidence-based recommendation can be made.16

ZINC SUPPLEMENTATION

Research in children suggests that zinc supplementation (20 mg per day for 10 days in children older than two months) may play a crucial role in treating and preventing acute diarrhea, particularly in developing countries. Studies demonstrate a decrease in the risk of dehydration, and in the duration and severity of the diarrheal episode by an estimated 20% to 40%.47 Additional research is needed to evaluate potential benefits of zinc supplementation in the adult population.

Prevention

Good hygiene, hand washing, safe food preparation, and access to clean water are key factors in preventing diarrheal illness.48 Public health interventions to promote hand washing alone can reduce the incidence of diarrhea by about one-third.49 Vaccine development remains a high priority for disease prevention, particularly for those in the developing world. Effective and safe vaccines exist for rotavirus, typhoid fever, and cholera, and are under investigation for Campylobacter, enterotoxigenic E. coli, and Shigella infections. To contain disease outbreaks, designated diseases should be reported to public health authorities. In the United States, reportable diarrheal illnesses include those caused by Vibrio cholerae, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Salmonella, Shigella, and Shiga toxin–producing E. coli.

Data Sources: A literature search was completed in Medline via Ovid, EBSCOhost, DynaMed, Essential Evidence Plus, and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Keywords were acute diarrhea, evaluation of acute diarrhea, Clostridium difficile, testing in acute diarrhea, and diagnostic testing in acute diarrhea. Search dates: March to April 2011, and December 2013.

The Authors

WENDY BARR, MD, MPH, MSCE, is associate residency director at the Lawrence (Mass.) Family Medicine Residency, and is an assistant professor of family medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, Mass.

ANDREW SMITH, MD, is a faculty member at the Lawrence Family Medicine Residency.

Address correspondence to Wendy Barr, MD, MPH, MSCE, Lawrence Family Medicine Residency, 34 Haverhill St., Lawrence, MA 01841 (e-mail: wbarr@glfhc.org). Reprints are not available from the authors.

The authors thank Michelle Olivieri, BBA, for her editorial assistance.

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