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What is Infectious Diarrhea? Causes, Symptoms and Prevention

Specialists define diarrhea as any thick or liquid defecation, which happens three or more times during the day. Beyond being a sign of a medical issue, infectious diarrhea is the second most common cause of death in low-income countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In Western countries with a developed health system, diarrhea doesn’t usually pose a problem. However, in other regions, it can become lethal. Whether you’re here for awareness or prevention, knowing about this condition is essential. In this article, we tell you all you should know about infectious diarrhea.

What is infectious diarrhea?

As we’ve mentioned above, infectious diarrhea is categorized as liquid defecation that’s produced more than three times a day. According to studies, in young children of two years of age, this reduces to three or more within a 12 hour period or failing that, at least one with blood, mucus, or pus.

Pathogens cause infections diarrhea, providing, of course, there wasn’t another reason such as food poisoning, or gastrointestinal upset – like irritable bowel syndrome. Viruses, bacteria, or protozoans (parasitic single-celled organisms), among others, are also able to cause the illness.

Beyond information of a medical nature, it’s essential to contextualize infectious diarrhea on a global scale. The World Health Organization has given us a series of revealing data, and among that, we find the following:

  • Diarrheal diseases are the second biggest cause of death in children under five years old worldwide.
  • This translates to, approximately, about 525,000 infant deaths a year.
  • It may be possible to prevent a significant proportion of these illnesses with adequate health structures and relevant food controls.
  • This condition can cause severe malnutrition, the loss of healthy years of life, and, in more serious cases, death of the patient.

Causes of infectious diarrhea

As scientific studies cite, viruses, bacterias, and protozoa all cause infectious diarrhea, in addition to certain more complex parasites. We’ll now briefly explain what each of these consists of.


Surprisingly, bacteria only cause between 10% and 20% of infectious diarrhea. Among the most common enteropathogenic, we find the following: Shigella spp., Salmonella spp., Vibrio cholerae, Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli, Aeromonas spp. and Yersinia enterocolitica.

It’s also worth mentioning the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni, which contributes to the four most common causes of diarrhea on a global level.


Many viruses cause diarrhea, including the noro- and rotaviruses. They are the most widespread responsible for acute diarrhea. These episodes of virus-induced loose stools are also known as viral gastroenteritis or stomach flu.

Protozoans and other parasites

Some protozoans present in water, like Entamoeba histolytica or Giardia lamblia, can also cause infectious diarrhea. More complex parasites, like intestinal worms, scientifically known as Ascaris lumbricoldes, also give way to this kind of clinical case.

Main methods of transmission

Depending on which pathogen we look at, we can observe that the transmission methods are multiple and varied. For example, a virus transmits through microaerosols that the infected person transmits – like coughs and sneezes – whilst a bacteria generally has to be ingested through food.

How to prevent infectious diarrhea

As a basic rule, as the Center for the Prevention and Control of Diseases (CDC) says, the best prevention to avoid infectious diarrhea is to sterilize the surfaces in your kitchen, don’t drink untreated water, and only eat food that has been cooked or pasteurized.

This is due to the fact that, effectively, the microorganisms that we have cited above transmit through direct contact with the mouth or ingestion, through water or certain foods.

What are other symptoms of infectious diarrhea?

In addition to liquid or thick feces, infectious diarrhea can accompany other symptoms, depending on the causing agent. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIH), some accompanying clinical signs may be the following:

Prevention from food poisoning

As you’ll have seen in this article, many pathogens can cause infectious diarrhea: bacterias, viruses, protozoans, and other parasites. In the majority of Western countries, this clinical case doesn’t pose too much of a problem, but in areas with low general sanitation, it’s the second most common cause of death.

The best prevention against diarrhea (excluding viral-induced incidences) is to avoid consuming raw, poorly-cooked food, or food that’s been handled in an environment that hasn’t been properly sanitized.

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