Part of life is having occasional diarrhea—loose, watery stool with more frequent bowel movements than normal. You might also experience abdominal cramps and various other symptoms. There are a variety of causes, but fortunately there are also proven treatments to help you get rid of diarrhea before it gets serious.
Diarrhea can be an acute or chronic disorder
Acute diarrhea lasts from 2 days to 2 weeks, and is usually caused by a bacterial, viral or parasitic infection.
Chronic diarrhea generally lasts more than 4 weeks and can be caused by conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or more serious disorders like ulcerative colitis, celiac disease or Crohn’s disease. See your primary care provider for help.
Sometimes diarrhea can get serious
Diarrhea is usually not harmful, and should go away on its own after a few days.
But if it is persistent, or you have symptoms such as a fever, dehydration or severe abdominal pain, see your primary care provider.
Common causes of diarrhea
People of all ages get acute diarrhea—in the U.S., adults get acute diarrhea once a year on average, while children get it twice a year.
According to the National Institute of Health, the most common causes of diarrhea include:
Bacteria from contaminated food or water. Bacteria is the most common cause of food poisoning, and commonly causes traveler’s diarrhea when visiting developing countries.
Viruses such as the flu, norovirus or rotavirus. The most common cause of acute diarrhea in children.
Parasites. Tiny organisms found in contaminated food or water.
Medicines. Medications such as antibiotics, cancer drugs and antacids that contain magnesium can cause diarrhea.
Food intolerances and sensitivities. Problems digesting certain ingredients or foods, e.g., artificial sweeteners, fructose and lactose.
Diseases that affect the stomach, small intestine, or colon such as Crohn’s disease.
Problems with how the colon functions, such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Some people also get diarrhea after stomach surgery, because sometimes the surgeries can cause food to move through your digestive system more quickly.
Sometimes no cause can be found. If your diarrhea goes away within a few days, finding the cause is usually not necessary.
When to see your primary care provider
For people of all ages, common signs and symptoms associated with diarrhea include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Abdominal pain
- Loose, watery stools
- Mucus in the stool
- Urgent and/or frequent need to have a bowel movement
Diarrhea is usually not harmful, but it can become serious or be a sign of a more serious problem.
See your primary care provider if you are an adult and you:
- Are dehydrated
- Have a fever above 102° F (39° C)
- Have bloody or black stools
- Have diarrhea lasting beyond a few weeks
- Have severe abdominal or rectal pain
If your child or baby has diarrhea, see your provider if his/her diarrhea doesn’t improve within 24 hours and your child:
- Becomes dehydrated
- Has a fever above 102° F (39° C)
- Has bloody or black stools
Getting rid of diarrhea
At-home remedies, what to eat and doctor-prescribed medications
Your diarrhea should go away on its own after a couple of days without treatment. Depending on the cause, you may need medicines to stop the diarrhea or treat an infection.
First, try these remedies at home:
- Anti-diarrheal medications. Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-diarrheal medications, such as loperamide (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate, might help reduce the number of watery bowel movements and control severe symptoms.
- Change your diet. Try the BRAT diet—eat only bananas, rice, applesauce and toast for a day or two. Add semisolid and low-fiber foods as your bowel movements return to normal, such as soda crackers, toast, eggs, rice or chicken. Avoid dairy products, fatty foods, high-fiber foods or highly seasoned foods.
- Drink plenty of clear liquids, including water, broths and juices. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
- Try taking probiotics. These microorganisms may help restore a healthy balance to the intestinal tract by boosting the level of good bacteria.
If these don’t work, see your primary care provider for a personalized treatment plan based on a proper diagnosis and your symptoms.
Your plan may include:
- Antibiotics. Can help treat diarrhea caused by bacteria or parasites.
- Hydration assistance. You need to replace fluids and electrolytes like sodium and potassium, which means drinking water, juice and broth. Your provider might even recommend IV fluids. For young children, an oral rehydration solution such as Pedialyte can be helpful.
- Adjusting your medications. If an antibiotic is causing your diarrhea, you may need to lower your dose or switch medications.
- Treating underlying conditions. If your diarrhea is caused by a more serious condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease, your doctor will work to control that condition. You might be referred to a specialist, such as a gastroenterologist, who can help devise a treatment plan for you.
Even though diarrhea strikes every year on average, you can take steps to prevent two types of diarrhea:
- Rotavirus diarrhea. Ask your primary care provider about vaccines for rotavirus, typically given to babies in 2–3 doses before 6 months of age.
- Traveler’s diarrhea. Be careful about what you eat and drink. When you are in developing countries:
- Eat food that is fully cooked and served hot and avoid unwashed or unpeeled raw fruits and vegetables.
- Use only bottled or purified water for drinking, ice cubes and brushing your teeth. If you have to use tap water, use iodine tablets or boil it first.