What is Secretory Diarrhea?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2019
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Secretory diarrhea is a form of loose stool characterized by high levels of electrolytes and fluid in the diarrhea, even when the patient is fasting or foregoing water. It can be very dangerous for patients, as electrolyte balances in the body will be disturbed if the patient loses electrolytes and fluids faster than they can be replaced. For this reason, people who are having diarrhea are usually provided with supportive therapy like electrolyte supplements and lots of fluids to make up for what the body is losing.

In secretory diarrhea, electrolytes and fluids are secreted into the intestinal lumen and expressed from the body. This condition can also be characterized by a failure to absorb water and electrolytes from food. When the body doesn't absorb these materials, they pass freely through the bowel. The patient can develop imbalances of salts in the body and become even sicker.

Cholera is a leading cause of secretory diarrhea. The debilitating diarrhea associated with cholera can be deadly if a patient is not provided with adequate supportive therapy to stabilize electrolyte levels while receiving treatment for the infectious bacteria causing the disease. Certain medications have also been linked with secretory diarrhea, as have laxatives, toxins, and some types of tumors.


Mild diarrhea can be treated at home. The patient usually benefits from rest and regular hydration with broths, teas, juice, and other fluids. This can keep the patient's body in balance until the diarrhea resolves. If diarrhea persists, it may not be possible to support a patient at home. Intravenous fluids and other treatments may be needed, along with medications to slow or stop the diarrhea before the patient develops additional complications. In a hospital setting, a doctor can evaluate the patient, take a sample to look for causative organisms, and prescribe immediate treatments to stabilize the patient.

In regions where secretory diarrhea is common, usually as a result of chronic cholera, people may be advised to take steps to avoid infection, such as boiling water before drinking, and they can also be given salt tablets. These tablets are added to fluids given to people with diarrhea to replace lost electrolytes and can be a valuable first line of defense against diarrhea-related mortality in areas where people may not have ready access to medical care. These tablets are generally low cost and may be made available for free by government agencies or nongovernmental organizations working in the region.


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