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What are the Most Common Causes of Diarrhea in the Elderly?

Laura M. Sands
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Some of the most common causes of diarrhea in the elderly include gastrointestinal disease, certain medications, food borne diseases, bacterial infections, food intolerance and immune deficiencies. Not all elderly people experience bouts of diarrhea, but many are frustrated by its onset, which can lead to more dangerous health risks if it persists. Many causes are avoidable, and understanding what diarrhea is as well as what causes it might help lower the number of cases.

Diarrhea is an abnormal bowel movement — specifically, a bowel movement that is watery and occurs at frequent intervals, usually more than three times per day. It is often accompanied by stomach pain and discomfort. Other symptoms, such as nausea, fever and even vomiting are often experienced as well. When these symptoms occur at the same time, it is usually caused by an infection and only lasts a few days with proper treatment.

Acute diarrhea, on the other hand, is described as abnormal bowel movements that can last up to two weeks. This might be symptomatic of a more severe illness or allergic response. Diarrhea in the elderly that lasts longer than two weeks is known as persistent diarrhea or even chronic diarrhea, if it lasts for more than a month.

Most people think of abnormal bowel movements as frustrating, even though they are non-threatening, but diarrhea actually can be fatal for elderly sufferers. Not only might the underlying illness cause death, but the important fluids and nutrients lost by frequent and long-lasting bowel movements can be dangerous as well. One of the world's leading causes of death is attributed to infectious diarrheal diseases, and the majority of these cases are among senior citizens.

The most common causes of diarrhea in the elderly also are some of the most avoidable. By maintaining good hygiene, keeping the immune system strong through a healthy diet and avoiding unsafe food practices, many infections can be avoided. In cases where diarrhea is caused by medications or another underlying illness, immediate medical attention should be sought.

Preventing the conditions that cause diarrhea is the best way to avoid it. Safe food handling practices, including keeping raw meat away from vegetables and other foods, washing the hands regularly, and disinfecting kitchen utensils and surfaces that have come in contact with raw meat and dairy products, should always be employed when preparing meals. Frequent hand washing, particularly after using the bathroom, also is recommended in order to reduce the incidents of infectious disease.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Laura M. Sands
By Laura M. Sands , Former Writer
Laura Sands, the founder of a publishing company, brings her passion for writing and her expertise in digital publishing to her work. With a background in social sciences and extensive online work experience, she crafts compelling copy and content across various platforms. Her ability to understand and connect with target audiences makes her a skilled contributor to any content creation team.

Discussion Comments

By donasmrs — On May 23, 2013

My father developed gluten intolerance oddly past his sixties. He had abdominal pain and diarrhea for months until he was diagnosed. It was shocking because he didn't have a problem with gluten before.

By ddljohn — On May 23, 2013

@feruze-- Yes, diarrhea is a symptom of renal failure. It's a sign that wastes are starting to accumulate in the body.

Your grandfather needs to see his doctor and have his diarrhea treated because if the diarrhea becomes severe and persistent, it can make his condition worse. It can cause damage to his functioning liver as well.

It's also possible that the diarrhea is unrelated to his liver condition. It could be a side effect of his medications or another medical condition. Like I said, he needs to see his doctor.

By bear78 — On May 22, 2013

My grandfather has been suffering from diarrhea for the past several months. The only health condition he has is kidney failure. He has only one functioning kidney.

Can this be a cause of chronic diarrhea?

Laura M. Sands

Laura M. Sands

Former Writer

Laura Sands, the founder of a publishing company, brings her passion for writing and her expertise in digital publishing...
Learn more
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