Differential Diagnosis of Chronic Diarrhea: An Algorithm to Distinguish Irritable Bowel Syndrome With Diarrhea From Other Organic Gastrointestinal Diseases, With Special Focus on Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency

Clin Gastroenterol. 2023 Apr 27. doi: 10.1097/MCG.0000000000001855. Online ahead of print.


Darren M Brenner 1J Enrique Domínguez-Muñoz 2


Author information

1Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Northwestern University-Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, IL.

2Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, University Hospital of Santiago de Compostela, Spain.


Chronic diarrhea, defined as diarrhea persisting for more than 4 weeks, affects up to 5% of the population regardless of patient age, sex, race, or socioeconomic status. The impact on patient health and quality of life is substantial, and diagnosis and management of these patients have significant economic consequences for health care services. The differential diagnosis of chronic diarrhea is broad, with etiologies including infections, endocrinopathies, maldigestive/malabsorptive conditions, and disorders of gut-brain interaction. The considerable overlap of symptoms across this spectrum makes accurate diagnosis problematic and may lead to delays in diagnosis or misdiagnosis. In this narrative review, we consider the differential diagnosis of chronic diarrhea, focusing on irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, two conditions that may present similarly but have very different underlying causes and require significantly different management strategies. We outline a 4-step diagnostic strategy and propose a straightforward algorithm to assist in efficiently differentiating irritable bowel syndrome from exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and other causes of chronic diarrhea. We anticipate that these aids will improve diagnostic accuracy, which ultimately should lead to improvements in patients' health-related quality of life and reduce the societal burden on health care services.

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