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Gastrointestinal Complications (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Diarrhea

Diarrhea is frequent, loose, and watery bowel movements.

Diarrhea is frequent, loose, and watery bowel movements. Acute diarrhea lasts more than 4 days but less than 2 weeks. Symptoms of acute diarrhea may be loose stools and passing more than 3 unformed stools in one day. Diarrhea is chronic (long-term) when it goes on for longer than 2 months.

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Diarrhea can occur at any time during cancer treatment. It can be physically and emotionally stressful for patients who have cancer.

In cancer patients, the most common cause of diarrhea is cancer treatment.

Causes of diarrhea in cancer patients include the following:

  • Cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, bone marrow transplant, and surgery.
    • Some chemotherapy drugs cause diarrhea by changing how nutrients are broken down and absorbed in the small intestine. More than half of patients who receive chemotherapy have diarrhea that needs to be treated.
    • Radiation therapy to the abdomen and pelvis can cause inflammation of the bowel. Patients may have problems digesting food, and have gas, bloating, cramps, and diarrhea. These symptoms may last up to 8 to 12 weeks after treatment or may not happen for months or years. Treatment may include diet changes, medicines, or surgery.
    • Patients who are having radiation therapy and chemotherapy often have severe diarrhea. Hospital treatment may not be needed. Treatment may be given at an outpatient clinic or with home care. Intravenous (IV) fluids may be given or medicines may be prescribed.
    • Patients who have a donor bone marrow transplant may develop graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). Stomach and intestinal symptoms of GVHD include nausea and vomiting, severe abdominal pain and cramps, and watery, green diarrhea. Symptoms may show up 1 week to 3 months after the transplant.
    • Surgery on the stomach or intestines.
  • The cancer itself.
  • Stress and anxiety from being diagnosed with cancer and having cancer treatment.
  • Medical conditions and diseases other than cancer.
  • Infections.
  • Antibiotic therapy for certain infections. Antibiotic therapy can irritate the lining of the bowel and cause diarrhea that often does not get better with treatment.
  • Laxatives.
  • Fecal impaction in which the stool leaks around the blockage.
  • Certain foods that are high in fiber or fat.

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?
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WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
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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