Diarrhea is more than 3 loose, liquid stools in a single day. It depletes the body of fluids and electrolytes. Diarrhea can be:
If the body loses too much fluid, it can become dehydrated. Dehydration is especially dangerous for babies, young children, and elderly people.
Causes may include:
Risk factors include:
Symptoms may include:
Call your doctor if you:
Call your doctor if your young child:
Call for medical help or go to the emergency room right away if you or your child has:
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may insert a gloved finger into your rectum to examine it. This is called a digital rectal exam.
To determine the cause of your diarrhea, the doctor will ask questions, such as:
Your bodily fluids, tissues, and waste products may be tested. This can be done with:
You may need to have your rectum and colon examined. This can be done with:
You may need to have images taken of your colon. This can be done with:
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Treating the underlying condition may help to relieve the diarrhea.
General recommendations for treating diarrhea include:
Plain water will not replace the electrolytes lost through diarrhea. For adults and children, look for age-specific oral rehydration solutions. Avoid fruit juices, soda, and drinks containing caffeine. For young children, continue with breastfeeding or formula feeding as advised by your child's doctor.
Doctors differ in their approach to treating diarrhea. For example, your doctor may recommend that you:
Ask your doctor which dietary guidelines you should follow. As your diarrhea subsides, your usual healthy foods can be reintroduced.
Your doctor may advise:
Children should not be given medication unless specifically advised by the doctor.
Diarrhea can cause severe dehydration. You may need to be hospitalized. Fluids will be delivered through an IV.
To reduce your chance of getting diarrhea:
Rotavirus is a common cause of diarrhea in children under 5 years of age. There is a vaccine to prevent rotavirus. The first dose is given at age 2 months. Make sure your infant has received this vaccine.
FamilyDoctor.org—American Academy of Family Physicians
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
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Diarrhea. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/diarrhea.html/. Accessed December 18, 2014.
Diarrhea. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/diarrhea/index.htm. Updated November 25, 2013. Accessed December 18, 2014.
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Rotavirus vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/Vaccines/RotaVSB.html. Updated February 3, 2014. Accessed December 18, 2014.
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4/14/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Magill SS, Edwards JR, et al. Multistate point-prevalence survey of health care-associated infections. N Engl J Med. 2014;370(13):1198-1208.
Last reviewed December 2014 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 12/20/2014