Diarrhea — loose, watery and possibly more-frequent bowel movements — is a common problem.
Luckily, diarrhea is usually short-lived, lasting no more than a few days. But, when diarrhea lasts for weeks, it usually indicates that’s there’s another problem. If you have diarrhea for weeks or longer, you may have a condition such as irritable bowel disorder, or a more serious disorder, such as a persistent infection or inflammatory bowel disease.
Signs and symptoms associated with diarrhea may include:
- Loose, watery stools
- Abdominal cramps
- Abdominal pain
- Blood in the stool
- Mucus in the stool
- Urgent need to have a bowel movement
When to see a doctor
In children, particularly young children, diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration. Call your doctor if your child’s diarrhea doesn’t improve within 24 hours or if your baby:
- Becomes dehydrated
- Has a fever above 102 F (39 C)
- Has bloody or black stools
A number of diseases and conditions can cause diarrhea, including
- Viruses. Viruses that can cause diarrhea include Norwalk virus, cytomegalovirus and viral hepatitis. Rotavirus is a common cause of acute childhood diarrhea.
- Bacteria and parasites. Contaminated food or water can transmit bacteria and parasites to your body. When traveling in developing countries, diarrhea caused by bacteria and parasites is often called traveler’s diarrhea. Clostridium difficile is another type of bacteria that can cause serious infections that cause diarrhea, and it can occur after a course of antibiotics or during a hospitalization.
- Medications. Many medications, such as antibiotics, can cause diarrhea. Antibiotics destroy both good and bad bacteria, which can disturb the natural balance of bacteria in your intestines. Other drugs that cause diarrhea are cancer drugs and antacids with magnesium.
- Lactose intolerance. Lactose is a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. People who have difficulty digesting lactose have diarrhea after eating dairy products. Lactose intolerance can increase with age because levels of the enzyme that helps digest lactose drop after childhood.
- Fructose. Fructose is a sugar found naturally in fruits and honey. It’s sometimes added as a sweetener to certain beverages. In people who have trouble digesting fructose, it can lead to diarrhea.
- Artificial sweeteners. Sorbitol and mannitol — artificial sweeteners found in chewing gum and other sugar-free products — can cause diarrhea in some otherwise healthy people.
- Surgery. Abdominal or gallbladder removal surgeries can sometimes cause diarrhea.
- Other digestive disorders. Chronic diarrhea has a number of other causes, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, microscopic colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
Indications of dehydration in infants and young children
- Not having a wet diaper in three or more hours
- Dry mouth and tongue
- Fever above 102 F (39 C)
- Crying without tears
- Drowsiness, unresponsiveness or irritability
- Sunken appearance to the abdomen, eyes or cheeks
Most cases of diarrhea clear on their own within a couple of days without treatment. If you’ve tried lifestyle changes and home remedies for diarrhea without success, your doctor might recommend medications or other treatments.
Antibiotics might help treat diarrhea caused by bacteria or parasites. If a virus is causing your diarrhea, antibiotics won’t help.
Water is a good way to replace fluids, but it doesn’t contain the salts and electrolytes — minerals such as sodium and potassium — that are essential for your body to function. You can help maintain your electrolyte levels by drinking fruit juices for potassium or eating soups for sodium. But certain fruit juices, such as apple juice, might make diarrhea worse.
For children, ask your doctor about using an oral rehydration solution, such as Pedialyte, to prevent dehydration or replace lost fluids.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Diarrhea usually clears up quickly without treatment. To help you cope with your signs and symptoms until the diarrhea goes away, try to:
- Drink plenty of clear liquids, including water, broths and juices. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
- Add semisolid and low-fiber foods gradually as your bowel movements return to normal. Try soda crackers, toast, eggs, rice or chicken.
- Avoid certain foods such as dairy products, fatty foods, high-fiber foods or highly seasoned foods for a few days.
- Ask about anti-diarrheal medications.
- Consider taking probiotics.