Fecal osmotic gap and pH in experimental diarrhea of various causes

Gastroenterology. 1992 Aug;103(2):545-51. doi: 10.1016/0016-5085(92)90845-p.


Although the osmotic gap of fecal fluid is often used to distinguish osmotic diarrhea from secretory diarrhea, there has never been a scientific evaluation of the validity of this concept. Similarly, although a low fecal fluid pH value is used to indicate that diarrhea is mediated by carbohydrate malabsorption, the validity of this method is unproven. Therefore, in the present study, diarrhea was induced in normal subjects by different mechanisms and fecal fluid osmotic gap (using an assumed fecal fluid osmolality of 290 mOsm/kg) and pH were measured. In secretory diarrhea caused by phenolphthalein, the osmotic gap was always less than 50 mOsm/kg, whereas in osmotic diarrhea caused by polyethylene glycol, magnesium hydroxide, lactulose, and sorbitol, the osmotic gap always exceeded 50 mOsm/kg. In osmotic diarrhea caused by sodium sulfate, the fecal fluid osmotic gap was less than 50 mOsm/kg, but phenolphthalein-induced secretory diarrhea could be distinguished from sodium sulfate-induced osmotic diarrhea by the fecal chloride concentration. When diarrhea was caused by carbohydrate malabsorption (lactulose or sorbitol), the fecal fluid pH was always less than 5.6 and usually less than 5.3; by contrast, other causes of diarrhea rarely caused a fecal pH as low as 5.6 and never caused a pH less than 5.3. It is concluded that measurement of fecal fluid osmotic gap and pH can distinguish various mechanisms of experimental diarrhea in normal subjects. The concepts on which these tests are based are therefore verified experimentally.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Diarrhea / etiology
  • Diarrhea / metabolism*
  • Feces / chemistry*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Male
  • Osmolar Concentration