Diarrhea Symptoms: When Is It Something More Serious?

Diarrhea can be a temporary thing, or it can signal something more serious. If you have diarrhea, how can you tell whether you should wait it out or see a doctor?

Run-of-the-Mill Symptoms

Diarrhea makes its presence known with several urgent trips to the bathroom in a short time. You know it’s diarrhea when you pass loose, watery stool two or more times a day.

You may also have:

  • Cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Vomiting

Even without medicine, diarrhea usually goes away on its own within 48 hours. The most important things you can do in the meantime are:

  • Stay hydrated while the diarrhea runs its course.
  • Avoid foods that will make your symptoms worse.

 

Avoid Dehydration

 

It can follow close on the heels of diarrhea, especially when symptoms linger, or if you vomit.

As soon as you realize diarrhea is on its way, make fluids a top priority.

When you have diarrhea, drink plenty of water. Also get fluids that will boost your sodium and electrolyte levels. Examples include:

  • Broth
  • Soup
  • Fruits and fruit juices

 

When Symptoms Get Serious

Most cases of diarrhea are nothing more than a brief inconvenience. But sometimes, they warn of a serious condition.

Talk with your doctor if your child has diarrhea for more than 24 hours. If you have it for more than 3 days, make an appointment.

Call your doctor right away if you have:

  • Severe abdominal or rectal pain
  • Blood in your stool
  • Black, tarry stools
  • High fever  (greater than 101.3 F)
  • Signs of dehydration

These can be warning signs of things like:

  • Infection
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Colon cancer

Also, be sure to let your doctor know about your diarrhea if you have cancer, or have had recent treatment for it.

When Diarrhea Won't Go Away

If you still have diarrhea after 4 weeks, then you have chronic diarrhea.

To figure out the cause, your doctor will want to know your symptoms and medical history. You'll get the most out of your appointment if you can tell him:

  • How long you've had diarrhea
  • Whether your diarrhea comes and goes, or is continuous
  • If you think certain foods and situations make things better or worse
  • If your stool looks bloody, oily, fatty, or watery
  • Other symptoms you have and how long you’ve had them
  • If you have a family history of chronic diarrhea
  • Places you've traveled to recently
  • Unusual foods you've tried in the last little while
  • Any medication or supplements you're taking
  • If you've lost a lot of weight

 

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on May 22, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: “Digestive Diseases: Diarrhea.”

Mayo Clinic: “Symptom Checker: Diarrhea.”

The American College of Gastroenterology: “Diarrheal Diseases.”

CDC: “Foodborne Illness.”

UPMC Health A to Z: "Diarrhea."

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