If diarrhea lasts for weeks or longer, it could indicate a more serious illness like inflammatory bowel disease or infection. Diarrhea with blood present may also be a sign of serious illness. People with long-lasting or bloody diarrhea should be seen by a medical professional. Schedule an appointment if you have these symptoms.
Those who are very young, old, or sick may need medical attention with diarrhea. Because diarrhea can cause dehydration, these populations may not be able to replace all the water and salts necessary for the body to function.
Symptoms of diarrhea include:
- Watery, thin, or loose stools
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal cramping or bloating
- Nausea or vomiting
- Bloody or black stools
- Urgency to have a bowel movement
- Weight Loss or dehydration
See a doctor if you:
- Have diarrhea that lasts more than two days
- Have bloody or black stools
- Have severe rectal or abdominal pain
- Have a fever above 102F
- Become dehydrated
Signs of dehydration can include:
- Urine that is darker in color
- Urinating less
- Increased heart rate
What Causes Diarrhea?
The most common cause of diarrhea is a virus in the bowel (viral gastroenteritis). This is sometimes called “intestinal flu” and can last for 1-2 days.
Viral hepatitis, cytomegalovirus, and Norwalk virus can all cause diarrhea. In children, rotavirus is a common cause of acute diarrhea.
Ingesting food or water that is contaminated can transfer parasites to your body. Cryptosporidium and Giardia lamblia are two parasites that can cause diarrhea. Drinking untreated water, such as from a stream in the woods, is often associated with contracting parasites.
Contaminated food and water can carry bacteria into the body. Common bacterial illnesses that can cause diarrhea include salmonella, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Shigella, and Campylobacter.
Diarrhea caused by parasites and bacteria when traveling abroad is often called traveler’s diarrhea. You are at increased risk of developing traveler’s diarrhea when you visit someplace where the sanitary conditions or climate are different from what your body is used to. Symptoms typically go away after one to two days and treatment isn’t necessary.
Some medications can cause diarrhea, including antibiotics. Antibiotics destroy bacteria – both good and bad – which can disrupt the balance of natural bacteria in the bowels. Cancer treatment drugs and antacids with magnesium may also cause diarrhea.
Those who are lactose intolerant may experience diarrhea after consuming milk or dairy products. Lactose is the sugar found in milk and dairy products that some people have trouble digesting.
Fruits and honey contain a natural sugar called fructose that can cause diarrhea in some people. Fructose is also used as a sweetener in beverages.
Artificial sweeteners found in sugar-free products and chewing gum may cause some people to have diarrhea. The ingredient names are sorbitol and mannitol.
Abdominal surgery or surgery to remove the gallbladder may cause diarrhea.
Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome can cause diarrhea.
To diagnose diarrhea, doctors will review your medical history and perform a physical exam first. This will include questions about recent diet changes, travel, and any medications you may be taking. Other tests for diarrhea may include:
A stool test can help determine if diarrhea is caused by a parasite or bacterium.
Blood tests can help determine the cause of diarrhea. Bloodwork can help identify concerns with infections and anemia, kidney function, electrolytes, and albumen (nutrition).
If the cause of diarrhea cannot be determined, your doctor may recommend a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. These procedures allow the doctor to view the lining of the colon using a thin, flexible tube with a small camera at the end.
How to Treat Diarrhea
Most cases of mild diarrhea do not require treatment. Home remedies for diarrhea and over-the-counter medications can help. If your symptoms persist longer than two days, your doctor may recommend alternative treatments or medications.
Treating Diarrhea Without Medication
Drink more fluids
Sip fluids throughout the day and/or increase the total intake of water to two to three liters if possible. Clear broths, fruit juice (without pulp), rehydration drinks, sports drinks, and tea with honey are helpful. These liquids replace the water and salt your body needs to function properly. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Gradually add low-fiber foods
As your stools become more solid, slowly increase your intake of low fiber foods. These may include bananas, smooth peanut butter, chicken (no skin), lean ground beef, fish, cottage cheese, yogurt, rice, potatoes, noodles, applesauce.
Avoid dairy, high-fat, high-fiber, and spicy foods
Fried or greasy foods, raw fruits and vegetables, spicy foods, and whole-grain breads and cereals are harder to digest.
Treating Diarrhea With Medication
Antibiotics can help treat diarrhea if the cause is parasites or bacteria. Antibiotics will not help if your diarrhea is caused by a virus. A stool test can help determine if antibiotics are appropriate for your diarrhea.
Sometimes a medication, such as an antibiotic, causes your diarrhea. In this case, your doctor may switch to another medication or lower your dose.
Over-the-counter diarrhea medications
Anti-diarrheal medications available over-the-counter may help reduce diarrhea symptoms. Loperamide (Imodium A-D) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) are widely available.
If the infection is caused by a parasite or bacterium, these medications could worsen the condition. Your body will try to remove what’s causing diarrhea and these medications may prevent that from happening.
Your doctor will likely recommend diagnosing the cause of your diarrhea if it is severe or lasts longer than two days.
Preventing diarrhea caused by a virus:
- What hands frequently with soap – especially before and after meals, food preparation, using the bathroom, changing diapers, sneezing or blowing your nose. Lathering the soap for 20 seconds is the most effective.
- Hand Sanitizer – If hand washing isn’t an option, using a hand sanitizer with alcohol can help. The hand sanitizer should contain at least 60% alcohol.
- Vaccination – Vaccines are available for some root causes of diarrhea. Infants can be vaccinated against rotavirus, the most common cause of viral diarrhea in young children.
Preventing traveler’s diarrhea
When you travel to underdeveloped countries, or where sanitation standards are lower, take the following precautions to avoid traveler’s diarrhea:
- Eat hot, completely cooked foods. Avoid raw fruits and vegetables unless you peel them yourself. Avoid undercooked or raw dairy foods and meats.
- Avoid tap water and ice cubes – Instead, drink bottled water. Beer, wine, and soda from the original container should be safe. Hot beverages, such as coffee and tea, are generally safe.
- Hygiene – use bottled water to brush your teeth and keep your mouth closed when showering.
- Antibiotics – Talk to your doctor about taking antibiotics leading up to and during your trip. This may reduce the risk of developing diarrhea while traveling.
Is diarrhoea the same as diarrhea?
Yes, diarrhoea is the British spelling of diarrhea.