Diarrhea is an increased frequency and decreased consistency of fecal discharge as compared with an individual’s normal bowel pattern. Frequency and consistency are variable within and between individuals. For example, some individuals defecate as many as three times a day, while others defecate only two or three times per week.
More than 90% of cases of acute diarrhea are caused by infectious agents; these cases are often accompanied by vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. The remaining 10% or so are caused by medications, toxic ingestions, ischemia, and other conditions.
Most infectious diarrheas are acquired by fecal-oral transmission or, more commonly, via ingestion of food or water contaminated with pathogens from human or animal feces. In the immunocompetent person, the resident fecal microflora, containing >500 taxonomically distinct species, are rarely the source of diarrhea and may actually play a role in suppressing the growth of ingested pathogens. Disturbances of flora by antibiotics can lead to diarrhea by reducing the digestive function or by allowing the overgrowth of pathogens, such as Clostridium difficile. Acute infection or injury occurs when the ingested agent overwhelms the host's mucosal immune and nonimmune (gastric acid, digestive enzymes, mucus secretion, peristalsis, and suppressive resident flora) defenses. Established clinical associations with specific enteropathogens may offer diagnostic clues.
In the United States, five high-risk groups are recognized:
1. Travelers. Nearly 40% of tourists to endemic regions of Latin America, Africa, and Asia develop so-called traveler's diarrhea, most commonly due to enterotoxigenic or enteroaggregative Escherichia coli as well as to Campylobacter, Shigella, Aeromonas, norovirus, Coronavirus and Salmonella. Visitors to Russia (especially St. Petersburg) may have increased risk of Giardia-associated diarrhea; visitors to Nepal may acquire Cyclospora. Campers, backpackers, and swimmers in wilderness areas may become infected with Giardia. Cruise ships may be affected by outbreaks of gastroenteritis caused by agents such as Norwalk virus.
2. Consumers of certain foods. Diarrhea closely following food consumption at a picnic, banquet, or restaurant may suggest infection with Salmonella, Campylobacter, or Shigella from chicken; enterohemorrhagic E. coli (O157:H7) from undercooked hamburger; Bacillus cereus from fried rice; Staphylococcus aureus or Salmonella from mayonnaise or creams; Salmonella from eggs; and Vibrio species, Salmonella, or acute hepatitis A from seafood, especially if raw.
3. Immunodeficient persons. Individuals at risk for diarrhea include those with either primary immunodeficiency (e.g., IgA deficiency, common variable hypogammaglobulinemia, chronic granulomatous disease) or the much more common secondary immunodeficiency states (e.g., AIDS, senescence, pharmacologic suppression). Common enteric pathogens often cause a more severe and protracted diarrheal illness, and, particularly in persons with AIDS, opportunistic infections, such as by Mycobacterium species, certain viruses (cytomegalovirus, adenovirus, and herpes simplex), and protozoa (Cryptosporidium, Isospora belli, Microsporida, and Blastocystis hominis) may also play a role. In patients with AIDS, agents transmitted venereally per rectum (e.g., Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Treponema pallidum, Chlamydia) may contribute to proctocolitis. Persons with hemochromatosis are especially prone to invasive, even fatal, enteric infections with Vibrio species and Yersinia infections and should avoid raw fish.
4. Daycare attendees and their family members. Infections with Shigella, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, rotavirus, and other agents are very common and should be considered.
5. Institutionalized persons. Infectious diarrhea is one of the most frequent categories of nosocomial infections in many hospitals and long-term care facilities; the causes are a variety of microorganisms but most commonly C. difficile.
The pathophysiology underlying acute diarrhea by infectious agents produces specific clinical features that may also be helpful in diagnosis. Profuse watery diarrhea secondary to small bowel hypersecretion occurs with ingestion of preformed bacterial toxins, enterotoxin-producing bacteria, and enteroadherent pathogens. Diarrhea associated with marked vomiting and minimal or no fever may occur abruptly within a few hours after ingestion of the former two types; vomiting is usually less, and abdominal cramping or bloating is greater; fever is higher with the latter. Cytotoxin-producing and invasive microorganisms all cause high fever and abdominal pain. Invasive bacteria and Entamoeba histolytica often cause bloody diarrhea (referred to as dysentery). Yersinia invades the terminal ileal and proximal colon mucosa and may cause especially severe abdominal pain with tenderness mimicking acute appendicitis.
Finally, infectious diarrhea may be associated with systemic manifestations. Reiter's syndrome (arthritis, urethritis, and conjunctivitis) may accompany or follow infections by Salmonella, Campylobacter, Shigella, and Yersinia. Yersiniosis may also lead to an autoimmune-type thyroiditis, pericarditis, and glomerulonephritis. Both enterohemorrhagic E. coli (O157:H7) and Shigella can lead to the hemolytic-uremic syndrome with an attendant high mortality rate. The syndrome of postinfectious IBS has now been recognized as a complication of infectious diarrhea. Acute diarrhea can also be a major symptom of several systemic infections including viral hepatitis, listeriosis, legionellosis, and toxic shock syndrome.
Table 1 Association between Pathobiology of Causative Agents and Clinical Features in Acute Infectious Diarrhea
Pathobiology/Agents Incubation Period Vomiting Abdominal Pain Fever Diarrhea
Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, 1–8 h 3–4+ 1–2+ 0–1+ 3–4+, watery
Clostridium perfringens 8–24 h
Vibrio cholerae, enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Aeromonas species 8–72 h 2–4+ 1–2+ 0–1+ 3–4+, watery
Enteropathogenic and enteroadherent E. coli, Giardia organisms, cryptosporidiosis, helminths 1–8 d 0–1+ 1–3+ 0–2+ 1–2+, watery, mushy
Clostridium difficile 1–3 d 0–1+ 3–4+ 1–2+ 1–3+, usually watery, occasionally bloody
Hemorrhagic E. coli 12–72 h 0–1+ 3–4+ 1–2+ 1–3+, initially watery, quickly bloody
Rotavirus and Norwalk agent 1–3 d 1–3+ 2–3+ 3–4+ 1–3+, watery
Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Aeromonas species, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Yersinia 12 h–11 d 0–3+ 2–4+ 3–4+ 1–4+, watery or bloody
Shigella species, enteroinvasive E. coli, Entamoeba histolytica 12 h–8 d 0–1+ 3–4+ 3–4+ 1–2+, bloody
Side effects from medications are probably the most common noninfectious cause of acute diarrhea, and etiology may be suggested by a temporal association between use and symptom onset. Although innumerable medications may produce diarrhea, some of the more frequently incriminated include antibiotics, cardiac antidysrhythmics, antihypertensives, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), certain antidepressants, chemotherapeutic agents, bronchodilators, antacids, and laxatives. Occlusive or nonocclusive ischemic colitis typically occurs in persons >50 years; often presents as acute lower abdominal pain preceding watery, then bloody diarrhea; and generally results in acute inflammatory changes in the sigmoid or left colon while sparing the rectum. Acute diarrhea may accompany colonic diverticulitis and graft-versus-host disease. Acute diarrhea, often associated with systemic compromise, can follow ingestion of toxins including organophosphate insecticides, amanita and other mushrooms, arsenic, and preformed environmental toxins in seafood, such as ciguatera and scombroid. Conditions causing chronic diarrhea can also be confused with acute diarrhea early in their course. This confusion may occur with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and some of the other inflammatory chronic diarrheas that may have an abrupt rather than insidious onset and exhibit features that mimic infection.