Diarrhea - overview
Diarrhea is when you pass loose or watery stool.
Stools - watery; Frequent bowel movements; Loose bowel movements; Unformed bowel movements
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.
The most common cause of diarrhea is the stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis). This mild viral infection most often goes away on its own within a few days.
Eating or drinking food or water that contains certain types of bacteria or parasites can also lead to diarrhea. This problem may be called food poisoning.
Certain medicines may also cause diarrhea, including:
Diarrhea may also be caused by medical disorders, such as:
Less common causes of diarrhea include:
People who travel to developing countries can get diarrhea from unclean water or food that has not been handled safely. Plan ahead by learning the risks and treatment for traveler's diarrhea before your trip.
Most times, you can treat diarrhea at home. You will need to learn:
Avoid medicines for diarrhea that you can buy without a prescription, unless your provider 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 provider right away if you or your child shows signs of dehydration:
Call for an appointment with your provider if you have:
Also call your provider if:
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Your provider will perform a physical exam and ask you questions about your medical history and symptoms.
Lab tests may be done on your stools to find the cause of your diarrhea.
This is also a good time to ask your provider 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:
When traveling to underdeveloped areas, follow the steps below to avoid diarrhea:
Schiller LR, Sellin JH. Diarrhea. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease: Pathophysiology/Diagnosis/Management. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 16.
Semrad CE. Approach to the patient with diarrhea and malabsorption. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 140.
Review Date: 10/25/2018
Reviewed By: Michael M. Phillips, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine, The George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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