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Facts About...


What is it?

Diarrhea is a condition of excessively frequent, loose, watery or semi-liquid bowel movements. As a result the stool will often take the shape of its container. Acute diarrhea normally lasts 24 - 48 hours and then goes away on its own, often without treatment. Prolonged diarrhea persisting for more than 2 days may be indicative of a more serious problem and poses a risk of dehydration. Diarrhea is usually related to a viral, bacterial or parasitic infection, including but not limited to viruses including rotavirus, bacteria such as shigella, and parasites such as giardia and cryptosporidium. Bowel disorders and food sensitivities may also cause diarrhea.

How is it spread?

Viruses and bacteria can survive for long periods of time on hands and for hours to months on environmental surfaces. These germs may be easily spread directly by the fecal-oral route, or indirectly by touching contaminated surfaces and toys/objects. Fecal contamination of the environment is common in child care settings (especially in the infant /toddler areas). Improper handwashing technique, poor personal hygiene and environmental sanitation are contributing factors.

What do I look for?

Diarrhea causes more bowel movements than normal, and stools that are unformed and more watery than usual. A person with diarrhea may also suffer from symptoms of fever, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, cramps, and blood and/or mucus in the stool. Diarrhea can cause dehydration which is particularly dangerous in children and the elderly.

How is it treated?

Diarrhea has many causes. Often, it is caused by a virus and will not respond to antibiotic treatment. Some bacterial diarrhea can be treated with antibiotics as can some parasitic infections. Treatment for diarrhea at the minimum must include rehydration. If replacement fluids are lost (vomit/diarrhea) over a sustained period of time, seek medical attention immediately.

How can I protect myself?

  • Wash hands thoroughly for at least 15 seconds with warm water and soap from a dispenser after using the toilet, changing diapers and/or cleaning up diarrhea and before and after eating, preparing or handling foods. People suffering from diarrhea should not prepare food for others until they are symptom-free for at least 24 hours (See Facts About… Handwashing).
  • Increase the frequency of handwashing.
  • Ill persons should remain at home until bowel movements return to normal and are symptom-free for at least 24 hours. It may be necessary for the person to visit a physician to decide if they are no longer infectious.
  • During an outbreak, ill persons should remain at home until symptom-free for 48 hours. Consult with your local Health Department regarding recommended control measures during an outbreak.
  • Increase the frequency for the cleaning and disinfection of frequently touched surfaces. Clean and disinfect surfaces such as bathroom fixtures, toys, door knobs, etc. as some viruses and bacteria can persist in the environment for extended periods of time (see Facts About… Cleaning and Disinfection).
  • Protect everyone who has diarrhea, especially young children, elderly or otherwise unwell persons from dehydration. Ensure that an adequate quantity of fluids are consumed, and seek medical attention as required.
  • Ill persons with bloody diarrhea should seek immediate medical attention.
  • Day nursery staff should wear disposable gloves during diaper changes when a child has had a bowel movement and follow appropriate diapering procedures.

April 8, 2009