Health & Medicine

Ailments of the Digestive System

Infection of or damage to any part of the digestive system may affect digestion as well as other bodily functions. Common infectious agents that attack digestive organs include the mumps virus, which often infects the salivary glands; the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which causes most stomach and duodenal ulcers; and viruses and bacteria that cause various forms of gastroenteritis, often called stomach flu or traveler’s diarrhea. Appendicitis is an inflammation of the appendix, a tube-like pouch about 9 cm (3.5 in) long that branches off the large intestine. It occurs most commonly among children and young adults. Diarrhea—frequent elimination of loose, watery feces—is a symptom of many disorders that occurs when the large intestine is irritated or inflamed. As a result, food residues move through it too quickly for it to absorb the excess water. The opposite condition, constipation, occurs when the large intestine absorbs too much water because food residues are moving slowly. As a result, the feces become hard and dry, which may make elimination difficult.

Cancerous tumors may develop in any part of the digestive system, though they most commonly occur in the large intestine, rectum, and anus (see Colorectal Cancer). Colitis, which has various causes, is a potentially life-threatening inflammation of the large intestine (see Ulcerative Colitis). Chronic conditions that cause at least intermittent distress include irritable bowel syndrome, caused by spasms of muscles in the lower intestine, and Crohn’s disease, an inflammation of the intestines. Abnormal sensitivity to proteins called glutens can damage the lining of the small intestine and hinder absorption of nutrients, leading to malnutrition and other problems. The eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia disrupt the normal functioning of the digestive system and are potentially fatal.