Diarrhea is a common ailment that most everyone experiences from time to time. It is characterized by the passing of loose, watery stool accompanied by abdominal pain and cramping.
Diarrhea typically clears up on its own within a few days, but severe or chronic diarrhea that lasts for weeks can be a sign of a serious health problem that needs medical attention.
Symptoms of Diarrhea
The main and most recognizable symptom of diarrhea is the passing of loose, watery stool that occurs three or more times a day. Diarrhea may also lead to the following symptoms:
- Pain or cramping in the abdomen
- An urgent need to go to the bathroom
- A loss of control of bowel movements
If diarrhea is caused by an infection, people may also experience:
- Bloody stools
- Fever and chills
- Light-headedness and dizziness
Diarrhea may also cause dehydration and malabsorption, each of which has its own symptoms.
Signs of dehydration include: thirst, urinating less frequently than normal, dark-colored urine, dry mouth, feeling tired, sunken eyes or cheeks, light-headedness or fainting, and a decreased skin turgor (when the skin is pinched and released, it does not flatten back to normal right away).
Symptoms of malabsorption include bloating, gas, changes in appetite, weight loss, and loose, greasy, foul-smelling bowel movements, notes the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (1)
Common Questions & Answers
Causes of Diarrhea
Diarrhea can be caused by a number of factors. The most common causes of diarrhea are:
Infection The three types of infections that cause diarrhea are:
- Viral infections, including norovirus and rotavirus
- Bacterial infections, which can enter the body through contaminated food or water. Common bacteria that cause diarrhea include Campylobacter, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Salmonella, and Shigella.
- Parasitic infections, in which parasites enter the body through food or water and settle into the digestive tract. Common parasites that cause bacteria include Cryptosporidium, Entamoeba histolytica, and Giardia lamblia.
Traveler's Diarrhea This type of diarrhea is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites while traveling abroad, usually in a developing country. Traveler's diarrhea is usually acute, but certain parasites cause diarrhea to last longer.
Side Effect of Medication Many medications may cause diarrhea. If you believe your medication is the cause of your diarrhea, talk to your healthcare provider. He or she may alter the dose or switch you to another medication.
Food Allergies and Intolerance Sometimes diarrhea is caused by an allergy to certain foods, such as dairy, soy, eggs, or seafood. In these cases, diarrhea is often chronic.
Lactose intolerance is a common condition that can cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms after you eat foods or drink liquids containing cow’s milk or milk products. Celiac disease, which is caused by an allergy to gluten, can also lead to chronic diarrhea.
Digestive Disorders Diarrhea can be a sign of a more serious health problem, such as a disorder of the digestive system. These can include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
Diarrhea may also be a sign of bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. (1)
How Diarrhea Is Diagnosed?
Many people experience diarrhea and do not go on to receive an official diagnosis as it often clears up on its own. Individuals who experience persistent or chronic diarrhea should seek medical attention so a doctor can diagnose the cause.
Duration of Diarrhea
Diarrhea can either be acute, or short-term; or chronic, meaning it lasts longer. Normally, acute diarrhea will clear up on its own in a few days.
Chronic, or severe, diarrhea lasts for more than two to four weeks and can indicate a serious health problem. For people with a compromised immune system, chronic diarrhea can be a life-threatening illness, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (3)
How to Prevent Diarrhea
While diarrhea may be a sign of an underlying health condition and may be unavoidable, there are steps you can take to avoid some of the causes.
One of the most important things you can do to prevent diarrhea is to wash your hands frequently. Be sure to wash your hands after using the bathroom, before preparing or eating food, before and after caring for someone who is ill, after touching garbage, and after touching an animal, animal feed, and animal waste.
If soap and clean water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60 percent alcohol, per the CDC. (4)
Another important way to prevent diarrhea in children is to get them vaccinated against rotavirus, which causes severe diarrhea mostly in babies and young kids. The virus can also lead to vomiting, fever, and dehydration. The CDC recommends babies get their first dose of the rotavirus vaccine at 2 months old. The second dose should be administered at 4 months old, and the third, if needed, at 6 months old.
The rotavirus vaccine will protect babies from severe diarrhea caused by rotavirus and most babies will not get rotavirus diarrhea at all, the CDC says. (5)
Finally, you can take steps to avoid traveler's diarrhea by watching what you eat and drink while traveling abroad, especially in developing countries, and talking to your doctor before you leave about taking antibiotics as a precaution, notes the CDC. (6)
Treatment Options for Diarrhea
Sometimes, diarrhea may signal a health problem and require medical attention.
But in most cases a bout of diarrhea will typically clear up in a few days and not lead to any further health problems. There are steps you can take at home to help treat diarrhea so it will go away faster.
If you have diarrhea, the following may help you feel better.
Replace fluids. Drink plenty of water, as well as fruit juices or sports drinks, and eat soups with clear broth to help replenish lost electrolytes. Pay attention to the amount of sugar in these drinks, because too much sugar can worsen diarrhea symptoms.
Eat a bland diet. A bland diet will be easy on your digestive system and can help ease diarrhea symptoms. A bland diet consists of foods that are soft, not spicy, and low in fiber. You should also avoid raw foods, fried foods, and drinks with alcohol or caffeine in them.
Try over-the-counter (OTC) medication. In most cases of diarrhea, over-the-counter medication can help ease the discomfort that comes with diarrhea. Options include loperamide, commonly known as Imodium, and bismuth subsalicylate, or Pepto-Bismol.
Antibiotics may be needed. If your diarrhea is being caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to help you feel better. A round of antibiotics can help treat diarrhea caused by bacteria or parasites. However, if your diarrhea is being caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help.
Treat underlying problems. Diarrhea may be a symptom of a more serious health condition, such as a food allergy or digestive disorder. Your doctor will work with you to figure out the underlying issue through testing and come up with an appropriate treatment plan. (2)
Complications of Diarrhea
When diarrhea strikes, it can cause the body to lose more fluid than it takes in, leading to dehydration. If severe, dehydration can cause your kidneys to shut down. That's why it's important to ensure that you're drinking adequate amounts of water when you have diarrhea. If you can't stomach water on its own, consider flavoring it with fruit juice, which can help if you're feeling nauseated, too.
Research and Statistics: How Many People Are Affected by Diarrhea?
According to a review published in April 2014 in The New England Journal of Medicine, approximately 179 million cases of acute diarrhea occur each year in the United States. (7)
A paper published in 2017 in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology states chronic diarrhea affects as many as 5 percent of the population at any given time. (8)
Related Conditions of Diarrhea
Diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms can be a sign of a disorder of the digestive system, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
It can also be related to celiac disease, lactose intolerance, or other food allergy. If diarrhea becomes chronic, a doctor can help determine if one of these conditions is the cause, notes the Mayo Clinic. (9)
Diet and Diarrhea
Certain foods can worsen diarrhea symptoms, so it’s good to know which foods are safe to eat and which ones to avoid.
Sticking to plain, simple foods, such as oatmeal, bananas, plain rice, and applesauce is a good option, especially in the first 24 hours of having diarrhea.
Other bland foods that are easy on the stomach include: toast, boiled potatoes, plain crackers, and pretzels.
Foods that will aggravate diarrhea and should be avoided include: fatty or fried foods; milk, butter, ice cream, and cheese; alcohol and sodas; foods containing artificial sweeteners; and foods that may be spoiled, according to MedlinePlus. (10)
Diarrhea and Your Period
Many women experience diarrhea and changes in their bowel habits during their period. The exact reason why this happens is not fully understood, but doctors believe the root cause is prostaglandins, the chemicals released during your period that allow the uterus — and thus the intestines — to contract.
Women who often experience bouts of diarrhea during their period can prepare for what is about to come beforehand by having easy access to over-the-counter medication like Imodium (loperamide) and staying well hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. (11)
Depending on the destination and season of travel, 30 to 70 percent of travelers will be affected by traveler's diarrhea, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
However, there are a number of steps people can take to avoid traveler's diarrhea. These include:
Check the CDC’s website for travel warnings. The travelers’ health website maintained by the CDC will alert you to disease warnings and health risks for various countries.
Watch what you eat and drink. In certain countries, the CDC will advise taking steps to avoid ingesting parasites that can make you sick, such as avoiding raw fruits and vegetables unless you peel them yourself, avoiding raw or undercooked meat or seafood, and sticking to hot, well-cooked foods. In certain countries, tap water is not safe to drink. In such places you should only drink bottled water and avoid tap water and ice cubes.
Talk to your doctor about antibiotics. Before you take off for your destination, make an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss possible health risks while on your trip. If you are going to a developing country for an extended period of time, ask your doctor about antibiotics. (6)
Diarrhea and COVID-19
While respiratory symptoms like cough and shortness of breath are the most common signs of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), digestive symptoms, including diarrhea, also occur in some patients.
A study published in March 2020 in The American Journal of Gastroenterology found diarrhea is often a symptom in individuals with less severe disease. (12) Of the 206 patients included in the study, 48 people only had digestive symptoms, while 69 had both digestive and respiratory symptoms.?Between both groups, 67 people had diarrhea, 19 percent of which experienced diarrhea as their first symptom.
Another March 2020 study published in the same journal looked at about 200 patients with more severe illness in Wuhan, China. (13) Researchers found around 50 percent of those patients experienced at least one digestive symptom with 18 percent reporting diarrhea, vomiting, or abdominal pain.
Resources We Love: Diarrhea
Favorite Organizations for Information on Diarrhea
Brought to you by an institute within the federal National Institutes of Health outside Washington, DC, this website offers information on symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. You can also learn about chronic diarrhea or find out how to participate in clinical trials.
The ACG is a professional organization dedicated to the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of digestive disorders. You can learn all about acute and chronic diarrhea on this website and find a gastroenterologist in your area.
Cancer and some of the treatments for it can cause diarrhea. The National Cancer Institute website offers tips on how to manage it. You can also download audio on the topic.
According to the CDC, 30 to 70 percent of travelers experience diarrhea every year, depending on where they go. Find out how to prevent and treat the condition.
Favorite Support Groups for People Dealing With Diarrhea
While diarrhea usually lasts a day or two, chronic diarrhea can indicate a gastrointestinal condition like irritable bowel syndrome. The IBS Network can link you to groups in your community so you can meet others for support and tips on dealing with the condition.
This patient-led education organization provides information on gastrointestinal disorders like IBS diarrhea and IBD. The forum has discussions on the gut microbiome and the tried-and-tested remedies of diarrhea sufferers.
Favorite Websites With Information on Remedies for Diarrhea
This website, by the American Academy of Family Physicians, offers information on over-the-counter remedies for diarrhea. It mentions potential side effects of common OTC medication and information on potential side effects with other medications.
When you’re dealing with diarrhea, it’s good to eat foods that can help solidify stools. The BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apples, and toast) can help with that. This page on the Oregon Clinic’s website provides a sample BRAT diet plan and information on what to do if diarrhea doesn’t go away in 24 hours.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Symptoms and Causes of Diarrhea. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. November 2016.
- Diarrhea Diagnosis and Treatment. Mayo Clinic. June 16, 2020.
- Hygiene-Related Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. August 2, 2016.
- When and How to Wash Your Hands. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 2, 2020.
- Rotavirus VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. October 30, 2019.
- Travelers' Health: Travelers’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. November 22, 2019.
- Acute Infectious Diarrhea in Immunocompetent Adults. The New England Journal of Medicine. April 17, 2014.
- Chronic Diarrhea: Diagnosis and Management. Perspectives in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2017.
- Diarrhea Symptoms and Causes. Mayo Clinic. June 16, 2020.
- Bland Diet. MedlinePlus. January 7, 2020.
- Why You Get Diarrhea or Constipation (Or Both) on Your Period. Cleveland Clinic. March 6, 2018.
- Digestive Symptoms in COVID-19 Patients With Mild Severity: Clinical Presentation, Stool Viral RNA Testing, and Outcomes. The American Journal of Gastroenterology. March 2020.
- Clinical Characteristics of COVID-19 Patients With Digestive Symptoms in Hubei, China: A Descriptive, Cross-Sectional, Multicenter Study. The American Journal of Gastroenterology. March 2020.