by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Diarrhea is more than three 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 TOP
Risk factors include:
Symptoms may include:
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Call your doctor if you:
Call your doctor if your young child:
When Should I Call for Medical Help Immediately?
Call for medical help or go to the emergency room right away if you or your child has:
The doctor will ask 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:
Tests may include:
Treating the underlying condition may help to relieve the diarrhea.
General recommendations for treating diarrhea include:
Drink Lots of Fluids
Plain water will not replace the electrolytes lost through diarrhea. For adults and children, look for age-specific oral rehydration solutions. Avoid fruit juices and soda. For young children, continue with breastfeeding or formula feeding.
Ask Your Doctor What You Should Eat
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.
Treat Abdominal Pain With Heat
Use a hot water bottle or heating pad on your abdomen to relieve cramps and pain.
Your doctor may recommend medicines, such as:
Children should not be given medicine unless specifically recommended 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 five years of age. There is a vaccine to prevent rotavirus. The first dose is given at age two months. Make sure your infant has received this vaccine.
American Academy of Family Physicians
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
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Last reviewed September 2012 by Daus Mahnke, MD
Last Updated: 3/4/2013