Chronic diarrhea is a common problem affecting up to 5% of the population at a given time. Patients vary in their definition of diarrhea, citing loose stool consistency, increased frequency, urgency of bowel movements, or incontinence as key symptoms. Physicians have used increased frequency of defecation or increased stool weight as major criteria and distinguish acute diarrhea, often due to self-limited, acute infections, from chronic diarrhea, which has a broader differential diagnosis, by duration of symptoms; 4 weeks is a frequently used cutoff.
Symptom clusters and settings can be used to assess the likelihood of particular causes of diarrhea. Irritable bowel syndrome can be distinguished from some other causes of chronic diarrhea by the presence of pain that peaks before defecation, is relieved by defecation, and is associated with changes in stool form or frequency (Rome criteria).
Patients with chronic diarrhea usually need some evaluation, but history and physical examination may be sufficient to direct therapy in some. For example, diet, medications, and surgery or radiation therapy can be important causes of chronic diarrhea that can be suspected on the basis of history alone. Testing is indicated when alarm features are present, when there is no obvious cause evident, or the differential diagnosis needs further delineation. Testing of blood and stool, endoscopy, imaging studies, histology, and physiological testing all have roles to play but are not all needed in every patient. Categorizing patients after limited testing may allow more directed testing and more rapid diagnosis.
Empiric antidiarrheal therapy can be used to mitigate symptoms in most patients for whom a specific treatment is not available.