Key Points about Diarrhea
- Diarrhea is characterized by loose, watery stool that may also be accompanied by more frequent bowel movements.
- Diarrhea can be caused by viruses, eating certain foods, taking certain medications, or by underlying medical conditions.
- Most cases of diarrhea can be treated at home by drinking fluids and eating certain foods.
Diarrhea is the occurrence of loose, watery, or potentially more frequent bowel movements. While diarrhea can be a symptom of an underlying disease or infection, most cases of diarrhea are not serious, and can be treated at home. For persistent diarrhea or diarrhea that is accompanied by other symptoms, consult your doctor. Your doctor may conduct tests to identify and treat the underlying cause of diarrhea.
There are many possible causes of diarrhea, including:
- Viruses such as Norwalk virus, cytomegalovirus, viral hepatitis, and rotavirus
- Bacteria and parasites from contaminated food or water
- Medications such as antibiotics, cancer drugs, and antacids containing magnesium
- Lactose intolerance
- Trouble digesting fructose or artificial sweeteners
- Certain surgeries, such as abdominal or gallbladder removal
- Other digestive disorders including:
- Crohn's disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Celiac disease
- Microscopic colitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome
Diarrhea risk factors
People with any of the conditions listed above are at an increased risk of experiencing diarrhea.
Symptoms of diarrhea include:
- Stool that is loose and watery
- Abdominal cramps or pain
- Stool with blood or mucus
- Feeling urgent needs to have a bowel movement
Diarrhea can cause dehydration and can do so particularly quickly in young children.
Steps to prevent diarrhea will depend upon the cause:
- To prevent viral diarrhea, wash your hands frequently.
- Vaccinating children against rotavirus can prevent diarrhea from that source.
When searching for the cause of diarrhea, doctors will want to know if:
- There is blood or mucus in your stool
- Anyone near you in your life has it as well
- Your urge to go is very intense
- You have abdominal pain
- You have a fever
- Feel confused or dizzy
- Have recently traveled anywhere
- Are currently, or were recently, taking antibiotics
- Certain foods improve or worsen symptoms
Doctors may also use the following methods to identify the underlying cause of diarrhea:
- Blood test — A full blood count assessment can help your doctor determine the cause of diarrhea
- Stool test to see if the diarrhea is being caused by a bacteria or parasite
- Colonoscopy to see inside colon or take a biopsy
Most cases of diarrhea should go away on their own within a few days.
When treating diarrhea at home:
- Drink lots of water and fluids (8-12 cups a day) to stay hydrated
- Try a sports drink with potassium to replace electrolytes your body may be losing
- Try foods such as:
- Peanut butter
- Turkey or chicken
- Avoid foods such as:
- Raw fruits and vegetables
- Fried and fatty foods
- Spicy foods
Some over-the-counter medicines can relieve symptoms, such as:
- Loperamide (Imodium)
- Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol)
If your diarrhea is the symptom of an underlying medical issue, your doctor will also provide treatment for that condition.
When to seek care
Adults should see their doctor if they:
- Have diarrhea for more than a few days
- Become dehydrated
- Have severe rectal or abdominal pain
- Have stools that are black or bloody
- Have a fever above 102 F
Parents should call their child’s doctor if:
- The child’s diarrhea does not improve within 24 hours
- The child has a fever over 102 F
- The child has stool that is black or bloody
Seek medical attention if home remedies do not improve symptoms after several days.