Diarrhea symptoms, causes and treatment

Diarrhea is often characterized by abnormal bowel movements (more than three times a day) and watery stool. It is a prevalent symptom of many digestive system complications among adults and kids. It’s common and typically not severe. Diarrhea can range from acute to chronic. 

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Diarrhea is often characterized by abnormal bowel movements (more than three times a day) and watery stool. It is a prevalent symptom of many digestive system complications among adults and kids. It’s common and typically not severe. Diarrhea can range from acute to chronic. 

Causes of Diarrhea

Typically, diarrhea happens due to a virus that infects the gut. Most people call it stomach flu or intestinal flu. As aforementioned, diarrhea comes in two forms: acute and chronic. Generally, severe diarrhea lasts for about 1-2 days and typically subsides without the need for any type of treatment. It is usually caused by bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections that affect the gastrointestinal or GI tract. It might also be a result of food intolerance such as gluten (wheat protein) and lactose (sugar in milk), as well as medications like antibiotics. On the other hand, chronic diarrhea lasts for over two days. It might be a sign of severe health complications such as inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcerative colitis. Chemotherapy (medications used to cure cancer) can also cause chronic diarrhea.

Other causes of diarrhea include the following:

  • Virus – Norwalk virus, viral hepatitis, and cytomegalovirus are the kinds of viruses that can cause diarrhea. Rotavirus is a widespread cause of acute diarrhea among children.
  • Parasites and bacteria-contaminated water and food can contract parasites and bacteria to the body. Typically, when you travel to developing places, traveler’s diarrhea is quite common, which is caused by parasites in bacteria acquired from the food and water around the area.
  • Lactose intolerance – generally, lactose is the sugar that is associated with milk and many other dairy products. Individuals who experience problems digesting lactose develop diarrhea right after consuming any dairy product. As you age, lactose intolerance can also progress since the number of enzymes that assist with digestion reduces after childhood.
  • Medications – most medications, like antibiotics, can lead to diarrhea. This is because antibiotics kill both bad and good bacteria, which alters the natural balance of bacteria in your gut. Other kinds of medications that cause diarrhea include antacids with magnesium and cancer drugs.
  • Artificial sweeteners – mannitol and sorbitol are artificial sweeteners that are often found in sugar-free products and chewing gums. These substances can result in diarrhea in specific healthy individuals.
  • Fructose – Fructose is a natural sugar component that is found in honey and fruits. It is sometimes used as a sweetener for some drinks. Individuals who experience problems digesting fructose might suffer from diarrhea.
  • Surgery – gallbladder or abdominal elimination surgeries might sometimes lead to diarrhea.
  • Other kinds of digestive complications – chronic diarrhea has different causes, including ulcerative colitis, microscopic colitis, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and celiac disease.

Diarrhea might also result from the following:

  • diabetes
  • alcohol abuse
  • allergies to particular foods
  • laxative abuse
  • eating foods that can cause distress to the digestive system
  • radiation therapy
  • overactive thyroid or hyperthyroidism
  • some types of cancers
  • running (there are people who acquire runner’s diarrhea for reasons that are still unknown)
  • problematic nutrient absorption called malabsorption

Diarrhea might also happen after constipation, most notably among those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome.

Diagnosis and Treatment

To diagnose diarrhea, your healthcare provider will ask questions about your medical history and the types of drugs and medications you consume, as well as the food and beverages you have taken recently or before your diarrhea occurs. He/she will run some physical tests to determine any symptoms of stomach pain or dehydration.

Specific physical exams can assist in finding out the cause of why you are suffering from diarrhea. These include the following:

  • Stool tests to evaluate if there are parasites or bacteria in your stool
  • Blood tests to determine particular disorders or illnesses
  • In rare cases of diarrhea, Colonoscopy is performed. The doctor will take a peek inside your colon using a thin and flexible tube material with a small camera and light attached. Utilizing the same tool, they can also get a tiny sample of your tissue. The doctor can also go for a more straightforward test, which is called sigmoidoscopy, a process of looking into the patient’s lower colon.

Treating diarrhea depends on its severity. If you have an acute case of diarrhea, there’s no need to consume any kind of medication. Adults can consume an over-the-counter drug like loperamide or bismuth subsalicylate, which you can access in tablet or liquid form. Apart from this, it is also essential to remain hydrated at all times. You need to drink about eight glasses of water or any type of fluid daily. Much better if you opt for caffeine-free soda or electrolyte alternative drinks. Tea with honey, fat-free chicken broth, and sports drinks are also great fluid replacements. Rather than drinking liquids when eating, drink liquids in between eating times. Sip minimal amounts of liquids often.

Moreover, your rectal area might also feel sore due to frequent bowel movements caused by diarrhea. When you go to the bathroom, you might experience pain, burning, or itching. To offer relief and treatment for this, take a warm bath. After bathing, pat the affected area dry using a clean and soft towel – don’t rub it since it could add more pain. You can also put petroleum jelly or hemorrhoid cream over the affected parts.

What are the normal conditions?

Diarrhea typically subsides without taking any treatment. To help combat diarrhea, here are some preventive measures that you can practice:

  • Drink a lot of clear fluids, including water, juices, and broths. Diarrhea is known for causing dehydration, and as much as possible, you want to replenish any lost water or nutrients in your body to avoid severe complications. Stay away from alcohol and caffeine.
  • Avoid consuming particular foods like high-fiber foods, dairy products, highly-seasoned dishes, and fatty foods to avoid distressing your stomach.
  • Take probiotics – probiotics are microorganisms that assist in renewing the healthy and average balance in your intestinal tract by improving the number of good bacteria. However, it is still unclear if they can help ease the bacteria faster. You can get probiotics in liquid or capsule form, and they can also be added to certain foods, like particular yogurt brands.
  • Add low-fiber and semi-solid foods in your diet since they are known for promoting regular bowel movements. Some of these foods include eggs, toast, rice, soda crackers, and chicken.

Risk of having diarrhea

Continuous diarrhea can dramatically decrease the water and nutrient supply in your body. In case you are suffering from diarrhea for more than three times per day, and you don’t consume a lot of liquids, you have a high risk of being dehydrated from all those water loss. Dehydration is the condition where excessive water is lost from the body tissues, which alters the balance of vital components in your body. Moreover, dehydration can lead to hazardous and life-threatening health conditions if left untreated.

Consult your doctor or physician as soon as you notice that you suffer from continuous diarrhea and experience any of these symptoms of dehydration:

  • fast heart rate
  • dark urine
  • decreased amount of urine
  • dry, flushed skin
  • headaches
  • confusion
  • irritability

Indications and signs of dehydration among babies and young children:

  • dry tongue or mouth
  • dry diaper for three hours or more
  • crying without tears
  • fever over 102 F or 39C
  • The sunken appearance of the cheeks, eyes, or abdomen
  • irritability, unresponsiveness, or drowsiness

When to seek medical attention

The majority of diarrhea cases are nothing to be worried about because it’s just a short inconvenience. However, there are cases where they turn into a severe and dangerous condition.

Consult your doctor or health care provider if the episodes of diarrhea lasts for more than 24 hours. In case it doesn’t stop after three days, set an appointment immediately. If you experience any of these, call your doctor as soon as possible:

  • blood in your stool
  • rectal severe pain and stomach pain
  • symptoms of dehydration
  • a black or tarry stool
  • intense fever (more than 101.3 F)

These signs can be an underlying symptom for:

  • colon cancer
  • pancreatitis
  • inflammatory bowel disease
  • infection

Besides, make sure that you inform your doctor about your diarrhea if you are diagnosed with cancer, or have had undergone chemotherapy treatment recently.

If your diarrhea remains after four weeks, it is already considered as chronic diarrhea. To determine the cause, your health care provider will ask about your medical history and the symptoms that you had experienced. Your appointment will go smoothly and will result in successful diagnosis if you could tell your doctor the following:

  • If your stool seems watery, fatty, oily, or bloody
  • The duration of your diarrhea
  • If your diarrhea is continuous or recurring
  • If your family has a history of chronic diarrhea
  • The symptoms that you’ve experienced and for how long you’ve experienced them
  • If your weight dramatically decreases
  • Any supplements, over-the-counter drugs, or medications that you are consuming
  • Locations you’ve recently traveled to
  • Uncommon dishes you’ve recently eaten
  • If you think particular situations or foods can worsen or treat your diarrhea


Diarrhea is a symptom of an infection or some other condition of the gastrointestinal tract. The underlying condition can be acute or chronic. Short-term diarrhea typically disappears on its own within a day or two. Chronic diarrhea on the other hand can be part of other diseases or medical conditions. Whether severe or not, the main danger for those with diarrhea is dehydration. Those who suffer from diarrhea are advised to stay hydrated and if the condition continues, to seek medical attention.

Table of Medications

  • loperamide
  • Lomotil
  • Imodium
  • atropine / diphenoxylate
  • Imodium A-D
  • Anti-Diarrheal
  • Florastor
  • Pepto-Bismol
  • Kaopectate
  • Lonox