Diarrhea is more than 3 loose, liquid stools in a single day. It depletes the body of fluids and electrolytes. Diarrhea can be:
- Acute—Occurring suddenly and lasting briefly
- Recurring—Coming and going
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:
- Food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance
- Magnesium-containing antacids
- Irritable bowel syndrome, which is episodes of diarrhea often alternate with periods of constipation
- Injury to the bowel after radiation treatments for cancer
- Malabsorption syndromes, such as Celiac disease
- Diseases of the pancreas and/or gallbladder
- Inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease
- Chronic diseases, such as:
- Intestinal surgery
- Infections such as:
Risk factors include:
- Traveling to a developing country where the water and food supply may be contaminated
- Taking certain medications
- Having a severely weakened immune system, such as with AIDS or after an organ transplant
Symptoms may include:
- Frequent, loose, liquid stools
- Abdominal pain, cramping
- Urgent need to defecate
- Blood and/or mucus in stool
- Nausea, vomiting
- Muscle aches and pains
- Weight loss
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Call your doctor if you:
- Have diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 days
- Are not able to eat or drink to stay hydrated
- Have a fever
Call your doctor if your young child:
- Has diarrhea lasting longer than a day
- Has pus in stool
- Is dehydrated—no wet diapers in three hours, dry mouth, crying without tears, skin that stays up after being pinched
- Is sleepy or irritable
- Has a fever
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:
- Does anyone else in your family have diarrhea?
- What kinds of food have you eaten recently?
- Do you drink well water?
- Do your children attend daycare?
- Have you traveled recently?
- Do you use laxatives?
- What medications do you take?
- Do you have any symptoms other than diarrhea, such as fever, rash, or aching joints?
- What is your sexual history?
- Have you ever had abdominal surgery?
Your bodily fluids, tissues, and waste products may be tested. This can be done with:
- Laboratory analysis of a stool sample
- Blood tests
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:
Treating the underlying condition may help to relieve the diarrhea.
General recommendations for treating diarrhea include:
Drink Plenty 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, soda, and drinks containing caffeine. For young children, continue with breastfeeding or formula feeding as advised by your child's doctor.
Ask Your Doctor What You Should Eat
Doctors differ in their approach to treating diarrhea. For example, your doctor may recommend that you:
- Drink only clear fluids during severe phases of diarrhea.
- Avoid certain foods, such as: spicy foods, fatty foods, greasy foods, high-fiber foods, dairy products in large amounts, and caffeinated drinks.
- Eat certain foods, such as: complex carbohydrates like pasta and rice, yogurt, fruits and vegetables, and lean meats
Ask your doctor which dietary guidelines you should follow. As your diarrhea subsides, your usual healthy foods can be reintroduced.
Your doctor may advise:
- Antidiarrheal medication
- Antibiotics—May be needed if a bacterial infection is causing diarrhea
- Probiotics may be beneficial in some cases
Children should not be given medication unless specifically advised by the doctor.
To reduce your chance of getting diarrhea:
- Practice good handwashing.
- Practice safe food preparation and food storage.
- If you have diarrhea, do not prepare food for others.
If you are traveling:
- Drink bottled water.
- Use bottled water when brushing your teeth.
- Avoid drinks that contain ice.
- Do not eat food purchased from street vendors.
- Do not eat raw vegetables or fruits. All produce should be peeled and/or cooked.
- Make sure meats and seafood are cooked thoroughly.
- Eat only pasteurized dairy products.
- If you eat seafood, make sure it is very hot.
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
Celiac disease. American Gastroenterological Association website. Available at: http://www.gastro.org/practice/resource-library/hot-topics/celiac-disease. Accessed December 18, 2014.
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.
King CK, Glass R, Bresee JS, Duggan C. Managing acute gastroenteritis among children: oral rehydration, maintenance, and nutritional therapy. MMWR. 2003 Nov 21;52(RR16):1-16
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.
1/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Allen S, Martinez E, Gregorio G, Dans L. Probiotics for treating acute infectious diarrhoea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(12):CD003048.
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
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.