Diarrhea is a condition that is classified as the appearance of loose, watery stools and/or a frequent need to go to the bathroom. It generally 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 lingers for a longer period of time (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:
- food intolerance
- food allergies
- adverse reaction to medication
- viral infections
- bacterial infections
- intestinal diseases
- functional bowel disorders
- gallbladder or stomach surgery
There are many different symptoms of diarrhea. These symptoms may occur in any combination, depending on the cause of the condition. You may experience any of the following:
- abdominal pain
- bloody stools
- frequent urge to evacuate the bowels
Chronic diarrhea may be a symptom of more serious conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease. If you are experiencing frequent severe diarrhea, you may be at risk for developing an intestinal disease or functional bowel disorder. If this is the case, tell your doctor.
A doctor will complete a physical examination and consider your medical history to help diagnose the cause of your diarrhea. He or she 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 may 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.
Because diarrhea causes a rapid loss of body fluids, it may put you at risk for dehydration. If left untreated, dehydration can be very serious and may even lead to death. The symptoms of dehydration include:
- dry mucous membranes
- increased heart rate
- increased thirst
- less urination
- dry mouth
If you think you may be becoming dehydrated as a result of diarrhea, 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, fluids may be given intravenously. If a bacterial infection is causing your diarrhea, you doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
Your doctor will determine your treatment based on:
- the severity of the diarrhea and/or related condition
- 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 serious condition in the very young. It can cause severe dehydration in an infant in just one day, and this can lead to death.
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 degrees 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.
To avoid developing diarrhea from food poisoning, consider:
- washing the cooking and food preparation areas more frequently
- serving food immediately
- refrigerating leftovers promptly
- thawing food in the refrigerator
Traveler’s diarrhea can also be prevented. If you are planning a long vacation to a developing country, consider:
- asking your doctor if you can begin an antibiotic treatment before you leave. This will greatly reduce your risk of developing traveler’s diarrhea.
- avoiding tap water, ice cubes, and fresh produce likely washed with tap water. Drink bottled water and eat cooked food only.
If you are suffering from diarrhea as the result of a viral or bacterial infection, you can take the following actions to prevent spreading your infection to others:
- Wash your hands more frequently.
- Use soap to wash your hands for 20 seconds.
- Use hand sanitizer when washing your hands is not possible.
Written by: Valencia Higuera
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA