- Abdominal cramps
- Abdominal pain
- The urgent need to have a bowel movement
- Mucus in the stool
If a virus or bacteria is the cause of diarrhea, it can also be accompanied by:
- Bloody stools
Causes of diarrhea in seniors
The most common causes of diarrhea are:
- Viral infections – Viruses that cause diarrhea include rotavirus, norovirus, and adenovirus. The highly contagious norovirus is the most common cause of diarrhea epidemics, such as those that occur on cruise ships, and at nursing homes, schools, and daycare facilities.
- Bacteria and parasites – Food or water contaminated with bacteria and parasites can cause infectious diarrhea, also known as traveler’s diarrhea since it’s common among people traveling to developing countries.
- Medications – Some medications can upset the gastrointestinal tract and cause diarrhea — for example, antibiotics, which disturb the natural balance of intestinal bacteria. Other medications that can lead to diarrhea are cancer drugs and antacids with magnesium.
- Lactose intolerance – Some people who have difficulty digesting lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products, can experience diarrhea after consuming them. Lactose intolerance can worsen with age due to lower levels of the enzyme that helps digest lactose.
- Digestive disorders – Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and celiac disease are among the illnesses associated with chronic diarrhea.
- Wash frequently – Wash hands after using the toilet, sneezing, coughing, blowing one’s nose, before and after preparing food, and after handling uncooked meat.
- Lather with soap – Rub hands together for at least 20 seconds to develop a good lather. This about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
- Use a hand sanitizer – When washing isn’t possible, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Make sure to cover the front and back of both hands.
If traveling to developing countries, seniors should take the following precautions:
- Drink only bottled water
- Avoid ice made with tap water
- Avoid eating food from street vendors
- Eat only fruits or vegetables that are peeled or cooked
- Avoid raw or undercooked seafood or meat
If left untreated
In most cases, diarrhea can be treated at home with plenty of liquids to replace lost fluids and electrolytes. The BRAT diet — bananas, rice, apple sauce, and toast — can also help ease symptoms. Potatoes, peanut butter, and skinless chicken or turkey are also other good food choices. (While recovering, avoid foods that can make diarrhea worse, such as raw fruits and vegetables, spicy foods, beans, or cabbage.) Depending on the cause of the diarrhea, over-the-counter antidiarrheal medications may also provide symptom relief, but seniors should consult their doctor before taking any of these drugs.
If left untreated, diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which can be life-threatening, particularly in seniors with weakened immune systems. If your elderly loved one has diarrhea, be watchful for signs of dehydration such as:
- Little or no urination
- Dark urine
- Dry mouth or skin
- Weakness, dizziness, or lightheadedness
- Difficulty speaking
Other complications are severe abdominal or rectal pain, a fever of 102 degrees or higher, black, tarry stools, or stools that contain blood or pus.
If you notice any of these complications or any sign of dehydration, seek medical care immediately.