Gastrointestinal Complications (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Diarrhea
Assessment includes a physical exam, lab tests, and questions about diet and bowel movements.
Because diarrhea can be life-threatening, it is important to find out the cause so treatment can begin as soon as possible. The doctor may ask the following questions to help plan treatment:
- How often have you had bowel movements in the past 24 hours?
- When was your last bowel movement? What was it like (how much, how hard or soft, what color)? Was there any blood?
- Was there any blood in your stool or any rectal bleeding?
- Have you been dizzy, very drowsy, or had any cramps, pain, nausea, vomiting, or fever?
- What have you eaten? What and how much have you had to drink in the past 24 hours?
- Have you lost weight recently? How much?
- How often have you urinated in the past 24 hours?
- What medicines are you taking? How much and how often?
- Have you traveled recently?
Tests and procedures may include the following:
- Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken. The exam will include checking blood pressure, pulse, and breathing; checking for dryness of the skin and tissue lining the inside of the mouth; and checking for abdominal pain and bowel sounds.
- Digital rectal exam (DRE): An exam of the rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the lower part of the rectum to feel for lumps or anything else that seems unusual. The exam will check for signs of fecal impaction. Stool may be collected for laboratory tests.
- Fecal occult blood test: A test to check stool for blood that can only be seen with a microscope. Small samples of stool are placed on special cards and returned to the doctor or laboratory for testing.
- Stool tests: Laboratory tests to check the water and sodium levels in stool, and to find substances that may be causing diarrhea. Stool is also checked for bacterial, fungal, or viral infections.
- Complete blood count (CBC): A procedure in which a sample of blood is drawn and checked for the following:
- The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
- The amount of hemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen) in the red blood cells.
- The portion of the blood sample made up of red blood cells.
- Electrolyte panel: A blood test that measures the levels of electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and chloride.
- Urinalysis: A test to check the color of urine and its contents, such as sugar, protein, red blood cells, and white blood cells.
- Abdominal x-ray: An x-ray of the organs inside the abdomen. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body. Abdominal x-rays may also be done to look for a bowel obstruction or other problems.