Diarrhea - overview

  • Definition
    • Diarrhea is when you pass loose or watery stool.

  • Alternative Names
    • Stools - watery; Frequent bowel movements; Loose bowel movements

  • Considerations
    • In some people, diarrhea is mild and goes away in a few days. In other people, it may last longer.

      Diarrhea can make you feel weak and dehydrated.

      Diarrhea in babies and children can be serious. It needs to be treated differently than you would treat diarrhea in adults.

      Talk with your health care provider if your child has diarrhea. There can be a lot to know. Your provider can help you learn how to recognize and treat diarrhea in babies and in children.

  • Causes
  • Home Care
    • Most times, you can treat diarrhea at home. You will need to learn:

      • To drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration (when your body does not have the proper amount of water and fluids)
      • Which foods you should or should not eat
      • What to do if you are breastfeeding
      • What danger signs to watch out for

      Avoid medicines for diarrhea that you can buy without a prescription, unless your doctor tells you to use them. These drugs can make some infections worse.

      If you have a long-term form of diarrhea, such as diarrhea caused by irritable bowel syndrome, changes to your diet and lifestyle may help.

  • When to Contact a Medical Professional
    • Call your health care provider right away if you or your child shows signs of dehydration:

      • Decreased urine (fewer wet diapers in infants)
      • Dizziness or light-headedness
      • Dry mouth
      • Sunken eyes
      • Few tears when crying

      Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have:

      • Blood or pus in your stools
      • Black stools
      • Stomach pain that does not go away after a bowel movement
      • Diarrhea with a fever above 101°F (100.4°F in children)
      • Recently traveled to a foreign country and developed diarrhea

      Also call your doctor if:

      • The diarrhea gets worse or does not get better in 2 days for an infant or child, or 5 days for adults
      • A child over 3 months old has been vomiting for more than 12 hours; in younger babies, call as soon as vomiting or diarrhea begins
  • What to Expect at Your Office Visit
    • Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask you questions about your medical history and symptoms.

      Lab tests may be done on your stools to determine the cause of your diarrhea.

      This is also a good time to ask your doctor any questions you have about diarrhea.

      Over-the-counter supplements that contain healthy bacteria may help prevent diarrhea caused by taking antibiotics. These are called probiotics. Yogurt with active or live cultures is also a good source of these healthy bacteria.

      The following healthy steps can help you prevent illnesses that cause diarrhea:

      • Wash your hands often, especially after going to the bathroom and before eating.
      • Use alcohol-based hand gel frequently.
      • Teach children to not put objects in their mouth.
      • Take steps to avoid food poisoning.

      When traveling to underdeveloped areas, follow the steps below to avoid diarrhea:

      • Drink only bottled water and do not use ice, unless it is made from bottled or purified water.
      • Do NOT eat uncooked vegetables or fruits that do not have peels.
      • Do NOT eat raw shellfish or undercooked meat.
      • Do NOT consume dairy products.
  • References
    • Schiller RL, Sellin JH. Diarrhea. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:chap 15.

      Semrad CE. Approach to the patient with diarrhea and malabsorption. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 142.