Diarrhea is a condition that’s characterized by the appearance of loose, watery stools or a frequent need to have a bowel movement. It usually lasts a few days and often disappears without any treatment.
Diarrhea may be related to a viral or bacterial infection and is sometimes the result of food poisoning. The condition commonly known as traveler’s diarrhea occurs when you’ve been exposed to bacteria or parasites while on vacation to developing countries.
Chronic diarrhea refers to diarrhea that lasts for at least four weeks and is usually the result of an intestinal disease or disorder.
Diarrhea may be caused by a variety of conditions or elements, including:
- a food intolerance
- a food allergy
- an adverse reaction to a medication
- a viral infection
- a bacterial infection
- an intestinal disease
- a parasitic infection
- gallbladder surgery
- stomach surgery
Chronic diarrhea may be a symptom of a more serious condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Frequent and severe diarrhea could be a sign of intestinal disease or functional bowel disorder.
There are many different symptoms of diarrhea that can occur in any combination. The symptoms depend on the cause. You may experience:
- abdominal pain
- bloody stools
- a frequent urge to evacuate your bowels
- stool incontinence
Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms.
A doctor will complete a physical examination and consider your medical history when determining the cause of your diarrhea. They may also request laboratory tests to examine urine and blood samples. Additional tests your doctor may order to determine the cause of diarrhea and other related conditions can include:
- fasting tests to determine whether a food intolerance or allergy is to blame
- imaging tests to check for inflammation and structural abnormalities of the intestine
- stool culture to check for bacteria, parasites, or signs of disease
- colonoscopy to check the entire colon for signs of intestinal disease
- sigmoidoscopy to check the rectum and lower colon for signs of intestinal disease
In cases of severe or chronic diarrhea, your doctor may order a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy to determine if an underlying intestinal condition is the cause.
Diarrhea can cause you to lose fluids quickly and put you at risk for dehydration. If diarrhea is left untreated, it can be very serious. The symptoms of dehydration include:
- dry mucous membranes
- increased heart rate
- increased thirst
- decreased urination
- dry mouth
If you think your diarrhea is causing you to become dehydrated, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.
Treatment for diarrhea usually requires replacing lost fluids. This simply means you need to drink more water or electrolyte replacement beverages such as sports drinks. In more serious cases, you may get fluids through intravenous (IV) therapy. If a bacterial infection is causing your diarrhea, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
Your doctor will decide your treatment based on:
- the severity and frequency of the diarrhea and related condition
- the degree of your dehydration status
- factors such as your health, medical history, and age
- your ability to tolerate different procedures or medications
- expectations for improvement of your condition
Diarrhea is a serious condition in the very young. It can cause severe dehydration in an infant in just one day.
Call your child’s doctor or seek emergency care for the following symptoms:
- signs of dehydration, including those listed above plus a lack of tears when crying, dry skin, sunken eyes or fontanel, sleepiness, and irritability
- diarrhea for 24 hours or more
- fever of 102°F or higher
- stools that contain blood or pus
- stools that are black and tarry
Although diarrhea can occur for various reasons, there are actions that you can take to prevent it.
Avoid developing diarrhea from food poisoning by:
- washing the cooking and food preparation areas more frequently
- serving food immediately
- refrigerating leftovers promptly
- thawing food in the refrigerator
Traveler’s diarrhea is also preventable. If you’re planning a long vacation to a developing country, consider doing the following:
- Ask your doctor if you can begin an antibiotic treatment before you leave. This will greatly reduce your risk of developing traveler’s diarrhea.
- Avoid tap water, ice cubes, and fresh produce likely washed with tap water while you’re on vacation. Drink bottled water and eat cooked food only.
If you have diarrhea that was caused by a viral or bacterial infection, take these actions to prevent spreading the infection to others:
- Wash your hands more frequently.
- When you wash your hands, use soap and wash for 20 seconds.
- Use hand sanitizer when washing your hands isn’t possible.
Written by: Valencia Higuera
Published on Oct 05, 2015
Medically reviewed on Oct 05, 2015 by The Healthline Medical Review Team