Diarrhea occurs when there is
an increase in the number of bowel movements or bowel movements are more watery
and loose than normal. When the intestines push stools through the bowel before
the water in the stool can be reabsorbed, diarrhea occurs. It can also occur
when inflammation of the bowel lining causes excess fluid to leak into the
stool. Abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, or a fever may occur along with the
Diarrhea is one of the most commonly occurring health
problems affecting all ages. Most adults will have 4 episodes of diarrhea each
year. Diarrhea that comes on suddenly may last up to 14 days.
Diarrhea has many causes.
- Diarrhea is often caused by stomach flu (gastroenteritis) or
food poisoning. Diarrhea is your body's way of quickly
clearing viruses, bacteria, or toxins from the digestive tract. Since most
cases of diarrhea are viral, they will clear up in a few days with good home
E. coli is a common bacteria that causes diarrhea.
E. coli infection is related to improper food
untreated water or unpasteurized dairy products can
cause viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections, such as
Giardia lamblia. Giardia lamblia parasite can cause diarrhea that develops 1 to 4 weeks later.
These infections can also occur when you use untreated water to brush your
teeth, wash your dishes or vegetables, or make ice for drinks.
prescription and nonprescription
medicines can cause diarrhea.
- Antibiotics may cause mild diarrhea that
usually clears up without treatment. A more serious type of diarrhea caused by
the bacteria Clostridium difficile (sometimes called
C-diff) may occur while taking an antibiotic or shortly after finishing the
- Laxatives, such as Correctol, Dulcolax, Ex-Lax, or
Feen-a-Mint, may cause diarrhea.
- Using too much of products that contain sorbitol
(such as chewing gum) or fructose can cause diarrhea.
- Some people
get diarrhea while traveling (traveler's diarrhea).
some people, emotional stress,
irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, or food digestion
problems (such as
lactose intolerance) cause
- Repeated episodes of diarrhea may be caused by
inflammatory bowel disease.
- Diarrhea may
also be caused by
malabsorption problems and certain types of
- Diarrhea may develop after stomach, bowel, or gallbladder
surgery, or after bariatric surgery for
Many times the exact cause of diarrhea is hard to
determine. Almost everyone has an occasional bout of diarrhea. Although
diarrhea is annoying, most cases are not serious and will clear up with home
Check your symptoms to decide if and
when you should see a doctor.
Home treatment can help you treat
your diarrhea and avoid other related problems, such as
- Take frequent, small sips of water or a
rehydration drink and small bites of salty crackers.
- Try to increase your fluid intake to at least
1 qt (1 L) per hour for 1 to 2
hours, or longer if you keep having large amounts of diarrhea. Note: If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
- Begin eating mild foods the next day or sooner,
depending on how you feel.
- Avoid spicy foods, fruits, alcohol, and
caffeine until 48 hours after all symptoms have disappeared.
chewing gum that contains sorbitol.
milk for 3 days after symptoms disappear.
You can eat cheese or yogurt with probiotics.
Nonprescription medicines for diarrhea
If you are
pregnant, talk with your doctor before taking any medicines for
Nonprescription medicines may be helpful in treating your
diarrhea. Follow these tips when taking a nonprescription medicine for
- Use nonprescription antidiarrheal medicine if
you have diarrhea for longer than 6 hours. Do not use nonprescription
antidiarrheal medicines if you have bloody diarrhea, a high fever, or other
signs of serious illness.
- Read and follow
all label directions on the nonprescription medicine bottle or box. Be sure to
take the recommended dose.
- Long-term use of nonprescription
antidiarrheal medicine is not recommended. To avoid constipation, stop taking
antidiarrheal medicines as soon as stools thicken.
- If your child or
flu, do not treat the symptoms with over-the-counter
medicines that contain bismuth subsalicylate (such as Pepto-Bismol and
Kaopectate). Subsalicylate has been linked to
Reye syndrome, a rare but serious illness. If your
child has taken this kind of medicine and he or she has changes in behavior
with nausea and vomiting, call your doctor. These symptoms could be an early
sign of Reye syndrome.
There are several types of antidiarrheal medicines: those
that absorb water and thicken the stool, and those that slow intestinal
- Thickening mixtures (such as psyllium) absorb water. This helps bulk up the stool and make it more firm.
- Antispasmodic antidiarrheals, such as Imodium A-D and Pepto
Diarrhea Control, slow intestinal spasms. Some products contain both thickening
and antispasmodic ingredients.
- Probiotics, such as Lactobacillus, are available in either pills or powder. This
bacteria occurs naturally in the intestine and may help with digestion. When
diarrhea is present, the number of these bacteria is reduced.
Learn how to clean up diarrhea safely. Protect your hands with gloves while cleaning up. Wash your hands after you are done cleaning up.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home
Signs of dehydration
Severe diarrhea (10 or more loose watery stools in 24 hours) develops.
- Black or bloody stools develop.
- A fever
- Your symptoms become
more severe or more frequent.
is a common cause of diarrhea in children and adults. Most cases of food
poisoning may be prevented by taking a few precautions when preparing and
storing food at home. Perishable foods, such as eggs, meats, poultry, fish,
shellfish, milk, and milk products, should be treated with extra care. Also,
precautions should be taken if you are pregnant, have an
impaired immune system or a chronic illness, or are preparing foods for other high-risk groups, such as young children or older
The U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) recommends the following steps to prevent food poisoning:
Prepare foods safely.
Cook foods to a safe temperature.
Store foods safely.
Follow labels on food packaging.
Serve foods safely.
When in doubt, throw it out.
Many counties in the United States have extension services
listed in the phone book. These services can answer your question about safe
home canning and food preparation.
When you travel in wilderness areas or to other countries of the world, it is common to get traveler's diarrhea from food or water because the methods of food preparation are different.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the
- How long have you had diarrhea?
many times per day are you having diarrhea?
- What does your diarrhea
look like? Describe the color, consistency (watery, mushy), and other
characteristics (contains blood or mucus).
- When was your last
episode of diarrhea?
- Have you recently increased the amount of
fiber in your diet (more fresh fruit, vegetables, or other high-fiber
- What prescription and nonprescription medicines do you
- Are you taking any new
- Did you recently increase the dose of a
- Have you taken any antibiotics recently?
you recently receive an antibiotic while in the hospital?
- Do you routinely use laxatives or stool
- Have you been under an unusual amount of stress at home,
work, or both?
- Does anyone you live with or work with have
- Did your diarrhea start after eating at a restaurant? Has
anyone who ate there with you become ill?
- Did you drink lake or
stream water or untreated well water?
- Have you recently visited a
foreign country or taken a ship cruise?
- Do you have any risk
factors that make you more susceptible to diarrhea, such as irritable bowel
- What home treatment measures have you tried? Be sure to
include any nonprescription medicines you have taken.
- Do you have
other symptoms, such as vomiting, fever, or dehydration?
- Do you
Nausea and Vomiting, Age 12 and Older