Diarrhea is more than three loose, liquid stools in one day. It causes the body to lose fluids and electrolytes. Diarrhea can be:
- Acute—sudden and brief
- Chronic—long term
- Recurring—diarrhea that comes and goes over time
Fluid loss can lead to dehydration. This can be dangerous for babies, young children, and older adults.
Causes may be:
- Food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance
Certain medicines, such as:
- Magnesium-containing antacids
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Injury to the bowel after radiation treatments for cancer
- Malabsorption syndromes, such as celiac disease
- Diseases of the pancreas or gallbladder
- Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease
- Chronic diseases, such as:
- Intestinal surgery
- Infections such as:
Things that may raise the risk of this problem are:
- Traveling to a developing country where the water and food supply may be contaminated
- Taking certain medicines
- Being in a hospital
- Having a severely weakened immune system, such as with AIDS or after an organ transplant
Problems may be:
- Frequent loose, liquid stools
- Belly pain and cramping
- An urgent need to have a bowel movement
- Blood and mucus in the stool
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle aches and pains
- Weight loss
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Call your doctor if you:
- Have diarrhea that lasts longer than three days
- Are not able to eat or drink to stay hydrated
- Have a fever
Call your doctor if your young child:
- Has diarrhea that lasts longer than a day
- Has pus in his or her stool
- Does not have wet diapers
- Is crying without tears
- Is unusually sleepy or irritable
- Has a fever
When Should I Call for Medical Help Right Away?
Call for medical help or go to the emergency room right away if you or your child has:
- Severe belly pain and cramping
- Bloody or black stool
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may insert a gloved finger into the rectum to examine it. This is called a digital rectal exam.
The doctor may ask these questions to find the cause of diarrhea:
- Does anyone else in the family have diarrhea?
- What kinds of food and drinks have you had?
- Do your children attend daycare?
- Have you traveled recently?
- What is your sexual history?
Blood tests and stool tests may be done.
The rectum and colon may need to be examined. This can be done with:
A biopsy may also be taken.
Images may be taken of the colon. This can be done with:
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Any underlying cause will need to be treated.
The goal of treatment is to ease diarrhea and prevent dehydration. Choices are:
- An oral rehydration solution to replace lost fluids
- Dietary changes, such as a clear diet and avoiding foods that trigger diarrhea
- Antidiarrheal medicine
The risk of diarrhea may be lowered by:
- Practicing proper hand hygiene
- Practicing safe food preparation and storage
Taking care when traveling, such as:
- Drinking bottled water and avoiding drinks with ice
- Avoiding foods from street vendors
- Not eating raw vegetables or fruits
- Cooking foods well
- Only eating pasteurized dairy products
Rotavirus is a common cause of diarrhea in children under 5 years of age. The rotavirus vaccine can prevent it.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Acute diarrhea in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/approach-to/acute-diarrhea-in-adults. Accessed February 9, 2021.
Diarrhea. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/diarrhea.html. Accessed February 9, 2021.
Diarrhea. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/diarrhea. Accessed February 9, 2021.
Rotavirus vaccines. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/vaccines/rotavirus-vaccine.html. Accessed February 9, 2021.
Shane AL, Mody RK, et al. 2017 Infectious Diseases Society of America Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Infectious Diarrhea. Clin Infect Dis. 2017 Nov 29;65(12):e45-e80.
Last reviewed December 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board James P. Cornell, MD Last Updated: 2/9/2021