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Cancer Health Center

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Gastrointestinal Complications (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Overview


Diarrhea, in some cases, can be life-threatening. Furthermore, diarrhea can lead to increased caregiver burden.

Specific definitions of diarrhea vary widely. Acute diarrhea is generally considered to be an abnormal increase in stool liquid that lasts more than 4 days but less than 2 weeks. Another definition suggests that diarrhea is an increase in stool liquidity (>300 mL of stool) and frequency (the passage of more than three unformed stools) during a 24-hour period.[4] Diarrhea is considered chronic when it persists longer than 2 months.

Radiation enteritis is a functional disorder of the large and small bowel that occurs during or after a course of radiation therapy to the abdomen, pelvis, or rectum.

The large and small bowel are very sensitive to ionizing radiation. Although the probability of tumor control increases with the radiation dose, so does the damage to normal tissues. Acute side effects to the intestines occur at approximately 10 Gy. Because curative doses for many abdominal or pelvic tumors range between 50 and 75 Gy, enteritis is likely to occur.[5]

In this summary, unless otherwise stated, evidence and practice issues as they relate to adults are discussed. The evidence and application to practice related to children may differ significantly from information related to adults. When specific information about the care of children is available, it is summarized under its own heading.


  1. Culhane B: Constipation. In: Yasko J, ed.: Guidelines for Cancer Care: Symptom Management. Reston, Va: Reston Publishing Company, Inc., 1983, pp 184-7.
  2. Wright BA, Staats DO: The geriatric implications of fecal impaction. Nurse Pract 11 (10): 53-8, 60, 64-6, 1986.
  3. Hampton BG, Bryant RA, eds.: Ostomies and Continent Diversions: Nursing Management. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Year Book, Inc., 1992.
  4. Tuchmann L, Engelking C: Cancer-related diarrhea. In: Gates RA, Fink RM, eds.: Oncology Nursing Secrets. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Hanley and Belfus, 2001, pp 310-22.
  5. Perez CA, Brady LW, eds.: Principles and Practice of Radiation Oncology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott-Raven Publishers, 1998.

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: 8/, 015
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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