What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea means that you have frequent loose or watery bowel movements. The symptoms of diarrhea usually last less than 3 days. Sometimes the diarrhea is gone after just a few hours, but sometimes it lasts as long as 2 weeks. Diarrhea that doesn’t go away after a few days or keeps coming back may be a sign of other medical problems.

Diarrhea takes water from your body. It can cause you to lose too much water, which is called dehydration. This can be a very serious problem, especially for the very young and the very old.

What is the cause?

Nearly everyone gets diarrhea at one time or another. It may be caused by:

  • Infection with bacteria, viruses, or parasites, such as food poisoning or stomach flu
  • Drinking water or eating food that has bacteria, viruses or parasites, for example, when you are hiking or camping, or traveling in some countries (such as some parts of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia)
  • Medicine, especially antibiotics
  • Sensitivity to certain kinds of foods, such as foods high in fats, sugar, fiber, or lactose (the sugar in milk products)
  • Food allergies
  • Anxiety
  • Medical problems such as irritable bowel syndrome

What are the symptoms?

You have loose, unformed bowel movements or more bowel movements than usual for you. You may also have pain or cramping in your belly, fever, or nausea.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Your provider will make sure that you are not getting dehydrated.

Tests may include:

  • Test of a sample of your bowel movements
  • Blood or urine tests

You may have tests or scans to check for other possible causes of your symptoms.

How is it treated?

Drink enough clear fluids to keep your urine light yellow in color.

If you have severe diarrhea, your body can lose too much fluid and you can get dehydrated. Dehydration can be very dangerous, especially for children and older adults. You may also be losing minerals that your body needs to keep working normally. Your healthcare provider may recommend an oral rehydration solution (ORS), which is a drink that replaces liquids and minerals. You can buy an ORS at drug and grocery stores. Follow package directions for mixing powders or taking frozen products. Drink small amounts over several hours if you have vomiting along with diarrhea.

If you don’t have an ORS, you can drink clear broth or water mixed with fruit juice. These are easy for your body to absorb. Avoid concentrated fruit juices, dark sodas, milk, and milk products. They are not as easily absorbed and usually have too much sugar.

Your provider may prescribe an antibiotic if your diarrhea is caused by bacteria or parasites.

If you are already taking an antibiotic for another illness and it seems to be causing the diarrhea, your provider may ask you to stop taking that antibiotic. You may be given a different antibiotic to treat the other illness.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • Rest your stomach and bowel but make sure that you keep getting liquids. You can do this by not eating anything and by drinking clear liquids only. Clear liquids include water, weak tea, fruit juice mixed half and half with water, Jell-O, or clear soft drinks without caffeine (like lemon-lime soda). Stir soda until the bubbles are gone.
  • Avoid liquids that are acidic, like orange juice, or caffeinated, like coffee.
  • You may eat soft, plain foods. Good choices are soda crackers, toast, plain noodles, or rice, cooked cereal, applesauce, and bananas. Eat small amounts slowly and avoid foods that are hard to digest or may irritate your stomach, such as foods with acid (like tomatoes or oranges), spicy or fatty food, meats, and raw vegetables. You may be able to go back to your normal diet in a few days.
  • If you have cramps or belly pain, it may help to put a hot water bottle or heating pad on your belly. Cover the hot water bottle with a towel or set the heating pad on low so you don’t burn your skin.
  • Don’t take aspirin, ibuprofen, or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) without checking first with your healthcare provider. NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take this medicine for more than 10 days.
  • You can buy nonprescription medicine to treat diarrhea at the drugstore. If you use it, make sure you use only the dose recommended on the package. Don’t use the medicine for more than 2 days without checking with your healthcare provider. If you have chronic health problems, always check with your provider before you use any medicine for diarrhea.

How can I help prevent diarrhea?

Some things you can do to help prevent getting diarrhea are:

  • Always wash your hands with soap and warm water after you use the restroom or change a diaper.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water often while preparing foods and before you eat.
  • Serve food right after it has been cooked or reheated. Refrigerate food promptly after meals.
  • If you are traveling to foreign countries, drink only bottled water, soft drinks, and drinks made with boiled water (such as coffee or tea). Do not eat raw fruits, vegetables, or meats. Do not eat food from street vendors. Talk to your healthcare provider before your trip. There may be medicines that you can take with you to prevent or treat traveler’s diarrhea.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-20
Last reviewed: 2014-10-20
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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