Diarrhea is more than 3 loose, liquid stools in a single day. It depletes the body of fluids and electrolytes. Diarrhea can be: Acute—occurring suddenly and lasting brieflyChronic—long-termRecurring—periods when diarrhea is present and absent
If the body loses too much fluid, it can become
. Dehydration is especially dangerous for babies, young children, and elderly people.
Risk factors include: Traveling
to a developing country where the water and food supply may be contaminatedTaking certain medicationsHospitalizationHaving a severely weakened immune system, such as with AIDS or after an organ transplant
Symptoms may include: Frequent, loose, liquid stoolsAbdominal pain, crampingUrgent need to have a bowel movementBlood and/or mucus in stoolFeverDehydrationNausea, vomitingMuscle aches and painsWeight loss
Call your doctor if you: Have diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 daysAre not able to eat or drink to stay hydratedHave a fever
Call your doctor if your young child: Has diarrhea lasting longer than a dayHas pus in stoolIs dehydrated—no wet diapers in three hours, dry mouth, crying without tears, skin that stays up after being pinchedIs sleepy or irritableHas a fever
Call for medical help or go to the emergency room right away if you or your child has: Severe abdominal pain and crampingBloody or black stool
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may insert a gloved finger into your rectum to examine it. This is called a digital rectal exam.
To determine the cause of your diarrhea, the doctor will ask questions, such as: Does anyone else in your family have diarrhea?What kinds of food have you eaten recently?Do you drink well water?Do your children attend daycare?Have you traveled recently?Do you use laxatives?What medications do you take?Do you have any symptoms other than diarrhea, such as fever, rash, or aching joints?What is your sexual history?Have you ever had abdominal surgery?
Your bodily fluids, tissues, and waste products may be tested. This can be done with: Laboratory analysis of a stool sampleBlood testsBiopsy
You may need to have your rectum and colon examined. This can be done with: Flexible sigmoidoscopyColonoscopy
You may need to have images taken of your colon. This can be done with: Upper gastrointestinal (GI) seriesBarium enema
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Treating the underlying condition may help to relieve the diarrhea.
General recommendations for treating diarrhea include:
Plain water will not replace the electrolytes lost through diarrhea. For adults and children, look for age-specific oral rehydration solutions. Avoid fruit juices, soda, and drinks containing caffeine. For young children, continue with breastfeeding or formula feeding as advised by your child's doctor.
Doctors differ in their approach to treating diarrhea. For example, your doctor may recommend that you: Drink only clear fluids during severe phases of diarrhea.Avoid certain foods, such as: spicy foods, fatty foods, greasy foods, high-fiber foods, dairy products in large amounts, and caffeinated drinks.Eat certain foods, such as: complex carbohydrates like pasta and rice, yogurt, fruits and vegetables, and lean meats
Ask your doctor which dietary guidelines you should follow. As your diarrhea subsides, your usual healthy foods can be reintroduced.
Your doctor may advise: Antidiarrheal medicationAntibiotics—may be needed if a bacterial infection is causing diarrheaProbiotics may be beneficial in some cases
Children should not be given medication unless specifically advised by the doctor.
Diarrhea can cause severe dehydration. You may need to be hospitalized. Fluids will be delivered through an IV.
To reduce your chance of getting diarrhea: Practice good handwashing.Practice safe food preparation and food storage.If you have diarrhea, do not prepare food for others.
If you are traveling:
Drink bottled water.Use bottled water when brushing your teeth.Avoid drinks that contain ice.Do not eat food purchased from street vendors.Do not eat raw vegetables or fruits. All produce should be peeled and/or cooked.Make sure meats and seafood are cooked thoroughly.Eat only pasteurized dairy products.If you eat seafood, make sure it is very hot.
Rotavirus is a common cause of diarrhea in children under 5 years of age. There is a
to prevent rotavirus. The first dose is given at age 2 months. Make sure your infant has received this vaccine.
Diarrhea. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at:
http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/diarrhea.html. Accessed December 18, 2014.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at:
Updated November 25, 2013. Accessed December 18, 2014.
King CK, Glass R, Bresee JS, Duggan C. Managing acute gastroenteritis among children: oral rehydration, maintenance, and nutritional therapy.
Rotavirus vaccine safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/vaccines/rotavirus-vaccine.html. Updated February 3, 2014. Accessed December 18, 2014.
Understanding celiac disease. American Gastroenterological Association website. Available at:
Accessed December 18, 2014.
Last reviewed December 2015 by Daus Mahnke, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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