What is Osmotic Diarrhea?

Nat Robinson

Diarrhea is the presence of frequent loose and primarily watery stools. This is a very common gastrointestinal condition and generally most people experience it at some point or another. There are different types of diarrhea. Osmotic diarrhea is a type that generally occurs due to something a person ingests. Most commonly diarrhea of this kind occurs due to a type of intolerance to certain sugars.

Elderly with osmotic diarrhea might require intravenous fluids.
Elderly with osmotic diarrhea might require intravenous fluids.

Osmotic diarrhea commonly results when something ingested draws water into the intestines, producing watery and loose stools. In many cases, this happens when a person is unable to properly absorb particular types of sugar. Artificial sweeteners, commonly found in food products like chewing gum, can cause this to happen. Additionally, fructose, which is used in a variety of products such as fruit juices and beverages, can cause this to happen. Sugar commonly found in dairy products such as milk can also cause this type of diarrhea.

Osmotic diarrhea can affect anyone, especially if he or she has an intolerance to sugar.
Osmotic diarrhea can affect anyone, especially if he or she has an intolerance to sugar.

In addition to a sudden change in stool frequency and consistency, individuals with this type of diarrhea may also experience abdominal cramping. Sometimes, an individual will also experience general abdominal pain. There may also be a visible distention or bloating of the stomach. Occasionally, ongoing diarrhea may lead to other symptoms. For instance, some people may develop a fever or start to see spots of blood in their stool after a while.

Osmotic diarrhea can affect anyone, especially, if he or she has a intolerance to sugar. It is important to be especially careful with babies, young children and senior citizens with this condition, because they can become dehydrated more rapidly. For this reason, it is important to be mindful of the signs of dehydration, in particularly with a baby or small child. Parents of a child with diarrhea who notice a decrease in the number of wet diapers, a lack of tears when crying and a particularly sluggish or drowsy demeanor should seek medical help at once.

A professional diagnosis of osmotic diarrhea may be made by a medical doctor. He or she may make the official diagnosis after performing a complete examination. Patients may also be asked questions about their condition which may help to pinpoint this particular type of diarrhea. Some doctors may conduct certain tests also. For example, the stool output may be tested for a presence of blood.

In most cases, diarrhea will clear on its own. With osmotic diarrhea, this will typically happen once the sugar-containing product is fully evacuated from the system. Diarrhea in the elderly and very young may need to be treated though, as the condition can become dangerous more quickly in these individuals. If ongoing or chronic diarrhea leads to dehydration, the first method of treatment will generally be to replenish the lost fluids in the body. In an emergency, this may be done intravenously. To obtain osmotic diarrhea relief in a standard case, it is generally a good idea to avoid the food products that may have led to the condition.

Diarrhea typically resolves on its own within one to two days.
Diarrhea typically resolves on its own within one to two days.

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Discussion Comments


My mom has lactose intolerance. For years, whenever she has constipation, she has drank milk to fight it. And she would always tell me to do the same when it happened to me. I tried it a few times and I did not develop diarrhea. I then read about lactose intolerance and realized that this is why my mom experiences diarrhea after having milk. I told her about it and she didn't believe me at first. I bought her lactose free milk to try and she also realized her intolerance after that.

I think it's an awful idea for a lactose intolerant person to use milk as a type of laxative. I'm glad my mom has understood that what she experienced was osmotic diarrhea.


@fBoyle-- Yes, that's the reason why some artificial sweeteners cause diarrhea. Especially sugar alcohols (which actually have nothing to do with sugar or alcohol) are used in diet foods and foods for diabetics. These are not digested by the body and pass through the digestive system without affecting blood sugar. That's why they can cause loose stools. Avoid having too much of such products.


Is this why sugar alcohols found in sugar free foods cause diarrhea when consumed excessively? There is always a warning about this on the label. It happened to me once when I ate to many sugar-free cookies.

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