Diarrhea

Aw, poo! Is diarrhea getting you down? Well, seeing as I’ve mentioned diarrhea a few times, I thought it was about time that I explored the topic. So let’s find out what diarrhea is and why we get it. You may be surprised to find out just how great diarrhea can be, even though it’s definitely not pleasant in the moment.

What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is runny or watery bowel movements (poo), where there is the characteristic loss in the form of the stool.

What causes diarrhea?

Diarrhea is usually an immune response indicating that you are suffering a gastrointestinal infection that has been caused by an endoparasite. In other words, diarrhea is the symptom of an infection in your gastrointestinal tract.

These infections are usually highly contagious as it can be spread via dirty hands contaminating food or water. These hands could have been changing a diaper or a pet’s fecal matter or simply cleaning the toilet but not washed properly (c’mon guys, just wash your hands!).  Kids usually get diarrhea frequently due to their tendency of putting their fingers into their mouths.

When we suffer from gastrointestinal infections, our bodies want to excrete the ingested endoparasite that is causing the infection out as quickly as possible. In order to do this, the muscles in your digestive tract contract at a faster rate than usual. This can cause a sharp pain in your abdomen.

These fast contractions also prevents your intestines from absorbing water from your waste; this means that the water in your intestinal tract leaves the body with your fecal matter instead of being retained in your body. This is why you get dehydrated when you have diarrhea, which is why you need to drink a lot of water and electrolyte-containing drinks (as you lose electrolytes and nutrients with your stool too).

Final thoughts

Okay, so basically diarrhea is great in that it helps us recover from an infection faster by excreting the endoparasites once it’s been detected by our immune system.

So while it’s a pain to deal with, it really teaches us the importance of hygiene. If we wash our hands properly and sanitize our hands and other items, there will be less of a risk of getting an infection. However, there are some endoparasites that won’t be phased by this, so diarrhea will be inevitable. The best thing you can do to recover from this infection is to stay hydrated. Your immune system is taking care of you, don’t you fret.

Without diarrhea, your body could become the new home to awful endoparasites. So just remember, it’s for the greater good.

Organisms Causing Gastroenteritis

You wanted to look at the list of organisms that can cause the stomach flu, well here you are you keener!

Here are some of the bacterial species that can cause the stomach flu and how they’re usually contracted:

  • Escherichia coli (E. coli) – Contaminated food or drinking water, food poisoning
  • Salmonella – handling poultry or reptiles that haven’t been properly cleaned
  • Campylobacter – undercooked meat or milk that hasn’t been heated to kill bacteria (Don’t worry, the latter is handled by the processors of dairy products!)

Some of the types of viruses that can cause the stomach flu are:

  • Norovirus – this is the virus that causes the largest number gastroenteritis outbreaks.
  • Rotavirus, which  is the most common cause of gastroenteritis in children. It can also infect adults who are exposed to children who have the virus.
  • Astrovirus
  • Enteric adenovirus

And two parasites  that causes really watery diarrhea are Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium, though the latter only really affects those with weak immune systems.

Stomach Flu aka Gastroenteritis

There seems to be a bug going around, causing everyone to be at home, sick to their stomachs – literally. There are lot of bugs in this world, but the stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, is not caused by any one of them. So what does cause the stomach flu and why is it so easy for us to catch it? Let’s first look at the difference between the stomach flu and what the term ‘flu’ is commonly associated with now-a-days.

Stomach Flu vs. the Flu

Sounds ridiculous that the two should be different considering they both have the same terms, but the stomach flu and what we refer to as “the flu” are completely different conditions. The flu refers to Influenza viruses, which we talked about last week. The stomach flu, however, can be caused by viruses, bacteria or other endoparasites. Want to know more? Here’s a list of the specific organisms that can cause the stomach flu.

So, what does ‘Gastroenteritis’ mean?

Gastro is the Greek word for ‘stomach’, while Entero is Greek for ‘intestine’. The suffix -itis indicates that the disease  is characterized by an inflammation of some sort. Therefore, Gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the stomach and the intestine, the inflammation being caused by your immune system in response to the harmful organism. This inflammation of the stomach and intestine can lead to digestive problems, which is why you experience diarrhea or vomit when you have the stomach flu.

How do we get infected?

Each endoparasite works differently. The viruses that cause the stomach flu act in the same manner as influenza. Bacteria are able to use the nutrients we have in our bodies to sustain themselves; the parasitic bacteria, however, release their waste products from the digestion of the nutrients into our bodies. Some of these waste products can be toxic to our body, which causes our immune system to react via the inflammation of  the stomach and intestine.

What are some symptoms?

The symptoms are all signs of your immune system trying to stop this infection from further harming you. You won’t always experience all of the symptoms, it really depends on how dangerous the endoparasite is and how long it takes your immune system to recognize it.

Symptoms usually show around 1-2 days after being infected.

Here are some common symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Cramps
  • Slight to noticeable fever (of 37.2°C /99°F or higher)

Viral infections can last a couple of days, while bacterial infections can last for a week, sometimes more depending on the severity of the infection.

Tips for coping

REHYDRATE: You’re going to lose a lot of water from vomiting and/or diarrhea. For children, they should be given drinks with electrolytes in them. Adults tend to have more electrolytes, so they can cope with drinking sports beverages like Gatorade or Powerade. Water can be a little helpful for the purposes of rehydration but you also lose a lot of electrolytes and minerals when you vomit and/or suffer from diarrhea, so sports beverages are the better alternative. Just make sure you drink in small amounts; large amounts can lead to vomiting.

SUGAR=NO-NO: Sugar is just going to irritate you more and make your diarrhea worse. It will not help replace the minerals you lose. So put those juice boxes away and stay away from your soda/pop!

EATING: Eating small amounts of food is suggested if you’re not vomiting excessively. Some foods you can eat are bread, cereal, vegetables, potatoes or apples. Stay away from dairy products for a while and just remember to take it easy on your stomach!

MEDICAL ATTENTION: Unlike the Flu, the Stomach flu doesn’t have any vaccines. You just have to wait it out and let your body work against the infection, but make sure you see your doctor so they remain informed!

A.D.A.M., Inc. 2013. Viral gastroenteritis. PubMed Health. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001298/&gt;. March 14, 2013.

Harding, A. 2013. 13 Things you should know about the stomach flu. Health.com. <http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20568435_last,00.html>. March 14, 2013.

Gardiner, J. 2006. Gastroenteritis (stomach flu) symptoms, causes, treatments. WebMD.com. <http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/gastroenteritis&gt; March 14, 2013.

The Flu

The flu, also called influenza, seems to be a worry for all mothers, mine being no exception.  Let’s take a look at the flu to get a better idea as to what it is, how it works, what we can do about it and why our mamas get so worked up about it.

What is Influenza?

Influenza is a type of virus. If you can remember high school biology, viruses weren’t really considered living things just because they can’t sustain themselves. They need a host, so an animal, human or even bacteria, in order for their DNA to be replicated. Influenza in particular is a virus that targets the nose, throat and lungs, which is why it sometimes resembles the common cold.

So how do we get infected?

Viruses are sneaky little buggers – they spread really easily. They can spread in the air, by touch (especially when touching food with dirty hands), or by fluids from the body like blood, saliva or semen.

When they finally enter our body, they have the ability to attach to our cells. See, our cells are similar to landing platforms for the viruses. When they land, they then inject their DNA into our cells in the same way a needle injects vaccines into our blood. This DNA is then replicated (copied) by our own proteins, then more viruses are generated. Eventually, the viruses inside are cell leave the cell by lysing (splitting) it, and the viruses spread to other cells to inject their DNA and make even more viruses. It’s literally a divide and conquer strategy for the viruses.

Different types of Influenza

There are three different types, or strains,  of influenza viruses: A, B and C. Influenza A is the pandemic-causing strain that can affect every living thing. It’s not picky, as long as the organism has the mechanisms to replicate DNA. Influenza A is the most common strain because of its ability to be replicated in so many different hosts. Influenza B only really affects humans, and is what we usually see in local outbreaks. Influenza C is the strain that no one really pays attention to because it’s docile; we don’t really get symptoms if infected with this strain.

What are symptoms of the flu?

The symptoms of influenza infection are all a result of your immune system trying to stop these viruses from taking over your body. Symptoms usually show around 1-2 days after being infected.

Some general symptoms are:

  • Fever (of 38°C /100°F or higher)
  • Cough
  • Weakness
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of appetite
  • Aches in lower back and/or legs
  • Diarrhea or Vomiting (in some cases)

The symptoms can last from 5 days to 2 weeks usually.

(Some of these symptoms and how they help our immune system will be discussed in later posts.)

Tips to coping with the flu

There’s not much you can do when you’ve been infected with the influenza virus – it’s really just up to your immune system to kill the virus. But there are ways to help yourself feel better and perhaps recover faster:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Rest! Get a lot of sleep and take it easy. Your body’s running a marathon to help you feel better, so you don’t need to.
  • Consider taking ibuprofen or acetoaminophen (found in Advil, Tylenol and other pain relievers – you can see them listed as ingredients!) to reduce the pain caused from some of the symptoms
  • Wear layers – it’s easier to deal with the alterations between chills and the fever if you can just take a layer off or add one

Vaccines!

Let’s talk flu shots now, which are offered usually between September and mid-November. Every medical professional I’ve encountered recommends getting the flu shot, and for good reason.

Viruses are not only little buggers because of their ability to spread easily and hijack our cells, but they also have the ability to mutate easily. If you’ve been vaccinated for “the flu” one year, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your immune system is prepared for the flu the next year; the immune system will no longer be able to recognize the virus because it’s changed. Let’s say, for the purposes of understanding this concept, the virus gets plastic surgery done every year and the immune system sees it as being a new antigen.

So, the reason why it’s recommended you get the flu shot every year is because they change the vaccinations to prepare your body for all of the strains that are potentially lurking about.

And that, in a very large nutshell, is the influenza virus a.k.a. the flu. Don’t let yourself get confused between this infection and other infections that are labelled as flus (like the stomach flu, which we’ll talk about next week!).

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Andersen, F. 2011. Viruses and bacteria. NetDoctor.co.uk. <http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/health_advice/facts/virusbacteria.htm&gt; March 08, 2013.

Ben-Joseph, E.P. 2013. Influenza (flu). KidsHealth.org. <http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/lung/flu.html&gt; March 07, 2013.

Davidson, M.W. 2005. The influenza (flu) virus. Micro.Magnet.fsu.edu <http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/cells/viruses/influenzavirus.html&gt; March 08, 2013.

Government of Alberta. 2012. Influenza – commonly called “the flu”. Health.Alberta.ca. <http://www.health.alberta.ca/health-info/influenza.html&gt; March 07, 2013.

Vaccines

Remember that scare in 2009, when the swine flu (H1N1) broke out and everyone was rushing to clinics? They were worried about this new, terrifying virus and hurried to get the vaccinations that would protect them from it. And the vaccines did just that; with the help of the H1N1 vaccinations, 300 lives were saved, and roughly 1 million illnesses and 6000 hospitalizations were prevented. But what are vaccines and how do they help us?

What are vaccines?

Vaccines are preparations of agents that look like disease-causing microorganisms. These agents are considered antigens, which basically means they are something that is foreign, or unfamiliar, to our immune system. The antigens in vaccines are usually just parts of a microorganism, a dead microorganisms, or live microorganisms that have been altered to be harmless.

How do vaccines work?

The purpose of using vaccines is to familiarize your immune system to microorganisms you have yet to encounter so that it will be able to learn how to recognize this new antigen and how to attack it so that it doesn’t cause further damage to your body.  Since the vaccines don’t contain the real, health-threatening organisms, when you’re injected with the vaccine, you won’t show any symptoms.

Vaccines are basically a test run for your immune system to learn how to protect you from different dangerous organisms. The cells of the microorganisms (in the vaccines and in real life) have proteins on its membranes that will allow your immune system to recognize them. Your immune system will recognize these injected cells as antigens and try to figure out a way to attack them. Different cells have different properties, so there are several ways for your immune system to dispose of these foreign agents.

Your immune system will eventually figure out a way to destroy the antigens and will keep this whole trial in its memory. It will remember two things:

  • What it found during the test run: the cells of the microorganism, any particular proteins on the cell surface, etc.
  • How it dealt with the organism to ensure your safety

It then applies that knowledge when you’re exposed to the real organisms. This artificial immunity is long-lasting, which is why it’s preferred for new dangerous diseases.

Your doctor provides you with a list of vaccinations you should be getting at certain ages, it’s in your best interest to make sure you’ve gotten them all!

Roos, R. 2013. CDC: Pandemic vaccine prevented 1 million cases, 300 deaths. CIDRAP.umn.edu. <http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/influenza/swineflu/news/feb0113panvax.html&gt; February 28, 2013

Seeley, R.R., Stevens, T.D., and Tate, P. 2008. Anatomy and Physiology (8th ed.). pp. 818, 1012. New York: McGraw-Hill.