1. Health
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Diarrhea

Adapted from the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)

By

Updated May 29, 2014

Female executive running to the toilet
Peter Cade/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Diarrhea is loose, watery stools occurring more than three times in one day. It usually goes away on its own without any special treatment. However, prolonged diarrhea can be a sign of other problems. Victims of diarrhea may pass more than a quart of stool a day.

Diarrhea can cause dehydration, a lack of fluid in the body. Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children and the elderly.

People of all ages can get diarrhea. The average adult has a bout of diarrhea about four times a year.

Causes of Diarrhea

  • Bacterial infections. Several types of bacteria, consumed through contaminated food or water, can cause diarrhea. Common culprits include Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, and Escherichia coli.

  • Viral infections. Many viruses cause diarrhea, including rotavirus, Norwalk virus, cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex virus, and viral hepatitis.

  • Food intolerance. Some people are unable to digest some component of food, such as lactose, the sugar found in milk.

  • Parasites. Parasites can enter the body through food or water and settle in the digestive system. Parasites that cause diarrhea include Giardia lamblia, Entamoeba histolytica, and Cryptosporidium.

  • Reaction to medicines, such as antibiotics, blood pressure medications, and antacids containing magnesium.

  • Intestinal diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease, and commonly leads to longer bouts of diarrhea.

  • Functional bowel disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, in which the intestines do not work normally.
In many cases, the cause of diarrhea cannot be found. As long as diarrhea goes away on its own, an extensive search for the cause is not usually necessary.

Associated Symptoms

Diarrhea may be accompanied by cramping abdominal pain, bloating, or nausea. The victim may also have a fever or bloody stools.

Diarrhea in Children

Infection with the rotavirus is the most common cause of acute childhood diarrhea. Rotavirus diarrhea usually resolves in 3 to 9 days.

Medications to treat diarrhea in adults can be dangerous to children and should be given only under a doctor's guidance.

Diarrhea can be dangerous in newborns and infants. In small children, severe diarrhea lasting just a day or two can lead to dehydration. Because a child can die from dehydration within a few days, the main treatment for diarrhea in children is rehydration.

Seeking Treatment for Diarrhea

You should see the doctor if any of the following occurs:
  • You have diarrhea for more than 3 days.
  • You have severe pain in the abdomen or rectum.
  • You have a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
  • You see blood in your stool or have black, tarry stools.
  • You have signs of dehydration.
If your child has diarrhea, do not hesitate to call the doctor for advice. Diarrhea can be dangerous in children if too much fluid is lost and not replaced quickly.

Diarrhea Treatment

In most cases, replacing lost fluid to prevent dehydration is the only treatment necessary. Medicines that stop diarrhea may be helpful in some cases, but they are not recommended for people whose diarrhea is caused by a bacterial infection or parasite — stopping the diarrhea traps the organism in the intestines, prolonging the problem. Instead, doctors may prescribe antibiotics. Viral causes may be treated with medication or left to run their course, depending on the severity and type of the virus.

Diarrhea and Food

Until diarrhea subsides, try to avoid milk products and foods that are greasy, high-fiber, or very sweet. These foods tend to aggravate diarrhea.

As you improve, you can add soft, bland foods to your diet, including bananas, plain rice, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers, cooked carrots, and baked chicken without the skin or fat. For children, the pediatrician may recommend what is called the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast.

Victims of diarrheal illness should not prepare food or pour beverages for others.

Preventing Traveler's Diarrhea

Traveler's diarrhea happens when you consume food or water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites. It is common in developing countries. Take the following precautions to prevent traveler's diarrhea:
  • Do not drink any tap water, not even when brushing your teeth.

  • Do not drink unpasteurized milk or dairy products.

  • Do not use ice made from tap water.

  • Avoid all raw fruits and vegetables (including lettuce and fruit salad) unless they can be peeled and you peel them yourself.

  • Do not eat raw or rare meat and fish.

  • Do not eat meat or shellfish that is not hot when served to you.

  • Do not eat food from street vendors.
You can safely drink bottled water (if you are the one to break the seal), carbonated soft drinks, and hot drinks like coffee or tea.

Depending on where you are going and how long you are staying, your doctor may recommend that you take antibiotics before leaving to protect you from possible infection.

Related Video
How to Do the Heimlich Maneuver
  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. First Aid
  4. Vomiting & Diarrhea
  5. Diarrhea Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.