Diarrhea in Elderly People

Diarrhea in Elderly People


According to Oxford Academic, 10-30% of the elderly patients with diarrhea also tested positive for Microscopic Colitis (MC). MC is an inflammation of the colon and has commonly been linked to diarrhea among seniors. Besides MC, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal, is the next common cause of loose stools among the elderly. At various stages in their lives, it is said that 9% of the elderly population will have suffered from a watery stool with more prevalence being among seniors who have lived in care facilities for a long period.

Diarrhea can be defined as the passage of watery stool more than three times a day. While generally having a loose stool may not be a sign of diarrhea, having it beyond three weeks should be a cause for alarm. This is because continuous diarrhea not only causes dehydration it may also lead to irritable bowel syndrome. IBS is a disorder that fills the large intestines with gas and mucous hence causing one to have loose stool. The fact that this disease drains a lot of water from the body it ranks top among killer diseases in the elderly.


What causes bowel problems in elderly people?

What causes bowel problems in elderly people

More often than not, the causes of diarrhea are hard to trace. Watery stool that appears and disappears on its own cannot be assumed to be diarrhea. Such cases do not warrant putting your loved one through a series of tests. However, if you suspect that one or more of the below causes apply to your senior’s diarrhea problem, it would be good to seek the help of a doctor.


Bacterial and viral infections

Germs such as parasites, viruses, or bacteria all can cause gastrointestinal (GI) infections.

Which germs, in particular, are responsible for diarrhea depends on the geographic area a person lives in and its level of sanitation, economic development, and hygiene standards.


Hormonal factors

Sometimes the imbalance of hormones in an elderly person’s body can be a cause for diarrhea. Cancerous tumors have also been known to result in neoplastic diarrhea.


Prescribed drugs

Medication that contains antibiotics can also trigger watery stool by affecting the normal bacteria protective function of the intestines.


Bowel malfunction

The elimination of the gallbladder, operation in the stomach, and irritable bowel syndrome are examples of bowel malfunctions that have been linked to watery stools.


Traveler’s diarrhea

Older people who travel to various destinations have a tendency of picking up viruses, bacteria, and parasites that cause bowel problems in the elderly. This happens when they consume unhygienically prepared food and/or drink untreated water.


Signs and symptoms of diarrhea in seniors

Signs and symptoms of diarrhea in seniors

Below are some common diarrhea symptoms. Caregivers should watch out for the presence of two or more symptoms and try to address them as soon as they are noticed.

  • A constant complaint of pain in the stomach
  • Increased intake of water which is a sign of dehydration
  • High fever
  • Noticeable reduction in body weight
  • A lot of gas in the stomach
  • Abdominal cramps


When to seek urgent help

When to seek urgent help

Diarrhea comes in various stages. If your loved one presents the following symptoms after showing signs of diarrhea, seek medical intervention immediately.

  • When they exhibit blood or pus in their stool
  • Major loss of water or acute dehydration
  • Continuous vomiting

Of importance to note is that diarrhea may be an indication of an underlying health condition. Therefore, elderly patients should be taken to the physician for a proper diagnosis in order to shield themselves from fatal complications.


What kinds of foods cause diarrhea in elderly patients?

What kinds of foods cause diarrhea in elderly patients

Elderly people react to some types of food differently. Typically, foods that cause diarrhea in elderly people are those with man-made flavors and sweeteners. In addition, other common foods known to trigger loose stools in elderly patients include:

  • Garlic and onions. Garlic and onions have liquids that can cause stomach irritation in older people. They also contain fiber which doesn’t easily dissolve in the system thus increasing the risk of developing watery stools.
  • Fatty foods. Seniors who love fast foods are more likely to develop diarrhea compared to those who eat home prepared meals. These kinds of food contain a lot of fat which the body cannot easily digest. Most of these foods are not beneficial to the older generation meaning, their system has to get rid of it as soon as possible.
  • Coffee. Limiting the intake of coffee for your elderly loved one is very important at this stage. This is because caffeine quickens the digestive process, especially when mixed with artificial sweeteners.
  • Excess spices in food. When preparing food for their older parents, adult children should avoid using strong spices which their parents are not accustomed to. Spices agitate a patient’s stomach thereby causing a burning sensation, bloating, and later on a watery stool.
  • Milk. Lactose intolerance is usually genetic although it can develop as our loved ones advance in years. Elderly parents with lactose intolerance usually do not have the capacity to digest the sugar (lactose) found in dairy products. This causes the body to react by expelling it in the form of loose stool.
  • Man-made flavors. It is advisable to use a minimal amount of real sugar when adding taste to food intended for the elderly parents. Artificial sweeteners have the tendency of causing irritable bowel syndrome in seniors.
  • Broccoli and cauliflower. Because of their high fiber content which may cause diarrhea in seniors, portion broccoli, and cauliflower moderately.
  • Alcohol. Excessive intake of alcohol over long periods can result in diarrhea for the older generation. Caregivers should work together with elderly parents to minimize this risk and involve professional help where necessary.


Diarrhea and malabsorption in elderly people

Diarrhea and malabsorption in elderly people

Malabsorption is a condition where the small intestines cannot absorb nutrients from the bloodstream. This may be due to an infection, surgery in the small intestine, or medication that a senior is currently taking. It is accompanied by symptoms such as diarrhea, bloating, weight loss, and in more serious or prolonged cases an adverse effect on the nervous system, liver, brain, bones, and other body organs. Diarrhea and malabsorption in the elderly need medical intervention. Here are some important tips to bear in mind about diarrhea and malabsorption.

  • A reduction in body weight and gastrointestinal are signs that point to malabsorption.
  • Constant complaining about constipation instead of diarrhea. In most instances, it is because of the shame associated with a watery stool so the elderly prefer not to talk about diarrhea directly. Doctors need to be keen to in order to avoid confusion.
  • Gastrointestinal malfunction leading to loose stools and malabsorption may exhibit similar signs in both the young and the older patients.
  • Discern the limits of physiologic transformations that take place as a function of age in order to rule out the misinterpretation of syndromes.
  • Treatment of diarrhea and malabsorption in seniors should be altered from time to time due to the counter effects of some prescribed drugs in elderly patients.


Prevention of diarrhea in elderly people

Prevention of diarrhea in elderly people

Acute diarrhea in elderly people especially the one caused by other underlying diseases cannot be avoided. However, watery stool caused by infection can be prevented. Try to avoid coming into contact with the agents that cause diarrhea and exercise proper hygiene in order to prevent watery stool. The older population that frequently transits across borders needs to consider the following guidelines which will help them in preventing diarrhea:

  • Ensure that elderly parents receive vaccinations as required by the area that they plan to visit.
  • Avoid ice prepared using tap water
  • Carry your own bottled water even for dental hygiene
  • Food prepared for old loved ones should be thoroughly cooked
  • Eat fruits and vegetables that have been cooked peeled
  • Any cooked food should be served and eaten before it cools
    Seniors who travel a lot should not eat food purchased from roadside traders
  • Wash their hands before and after preparing and serving food intended for the elderly. Washing hands involves letting soap to lather in your hands for about 20 seconds, rubbing your hands together thoroughly, and then rinsing it off with enough clean water. Under circumstances where one cannot wash their hands, a hand sanitizer comes in handy.


Treatment of diarrhea in elderly patients

Treatment of diarrhea in elderly patients

Treatment for chronic diarrhea in elderly patients can be facilitated in two ways, home remedies and medical treatment. The following is a list of points that can help the caregiver to effectively manage watery stools at home:

  • Help your loved ones to drink a lot of water to counter dehydration
  • It is advisable to prepare green bananas for older patients. Green bananas are low in fiber and have been known to make the stool to become firm rather than loose.
  • Pectin and probiotics are effective dietary supplements that help stop diarrhea. This is because they contain the live bacteria needed to replace those that have been lost through diarrhea in the gastrointestinal tract.
  • White rice, toast, and applesauce are other low fiber foods good for firming stool when suffering from diarrhea.

Medical treatment for diarrhea in elderly patients may require the doctor to perform blood and stool tests to get the correct diagnosis for the disease. He may also check the lining of the colon of the affected person in severe cases. Here are other diarrhea treatment options.


Antibiotics for diarrhea caused by bacteria

Treatment of other underlying diseases like inflammatory bowel disease
Lowering the dose or changing prescriptions to reduce their side effects
A physician may pass fluids through the veins of older people that have difficulty in taking liquids to replenish lost salts and fluids in a patient’s body.



Although the causes of diarrhea are numerous, drug-associated etiology should always be embraced in order to hinder the complications of extreme loss of water, electrolyte imbalance, and poor nutrition. Fighting diarrhea or preventing it thereof should not be left to the caregiver alone. It takes teamwork. Right from the caregivers because they are the ones closely involved with the elderly, immediate family because they may be aware of the medical history of their loved one, the elderly person because they know themselves better than anyone else, to the medical practitioner because he/she will be called upon to offer a solution. In addition, elderly parents should be encouraged to give the correct information concerning their situation to help in diagnosing and treating diarrhea. This way, dealing with diarrhea will not be a difficult affair.

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