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Diarrhea Symptoms: When Is It Something More Serious?

Diarrhea can be a nasty but temporary irregularity, or it can signal something more serious. If you have diarrhea, how can you tell if you should wait it out or seek medical care?

Run-of-the-Mill Diarrhea Symptoms

Diarrhea makes its presence known with the urgency, frequency, and volume of your trips to the bathroom. You know that it’s diarrhea when you pass loose, watery stool two to three times a day or more. These other symptoms can also accompany diarrhea:

Diarrhea usually goes away on its own within 48 hours without medication. The most important things you can do are to stay hydrated while the diarrhea runs its course and avoid foods that will make you suffer more.

Avoid Dehydration from Diarrhea

Dehydration can follow close on the heels of diarrhea, especially when it lingers or is accompanied by vomiting. As soon as you realize you’re in for a bout of diarrhea, make replacing fluids a top priority.

When you have diarrhea, drink plenty of water, as well as fluids with that will boost your sodium and electrolytes. Broth, soup, fruit juices, and soft fruits can replace both fluids and electrolytes lost to diarrhea.

When Diarrhea Symptoms Get Serious

Most cases of diarrhea are nothing more than a brief upset of no great significance. But sometimes diarrhea warns of a serious condition.

Consult your doctor if diarrhea persists in a child for more than 24 hours, or after three days for an adult. Call immediately if you see any of these symptoms:

These diarrhea symptoms can be warning signs of conditions such as infection, irritable bowel disease, pancreatitis, or even colon cancer.

When Diarrhea Persists

If you’re still trotting to the bathroom with diarrhea after two weeks, then you have chronic diarrhea. To determine the cause of your diarrhea, your doctor will want to know your symptoms and medical history. You will get the most out of your appointment if you can accurately provide the following information:

  • How long you have had diarrhea
  • Whether your diarrhea comes and goes or is continuous
  • If certain foods and situations seem to make symptoms worse or better
  • If your stool looks to be bloody, oily, fatty, or watery
  • Other symptoms and how long you’ve had them
  • History of chronic diarrhea for you or your immediate family
  • Recent travel destinations and foods you ate
  • Current medications, if any

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on October 26, 2015
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