Diarrhea: Why It Happens and How to Treat It

When you have diarrhea, your bowel movements (or stools) are loose and watery. It’s very common and usually not serious.

Many people get diarrhea once or twice each year. It normally lasts 2 to 3 days, and you can treat it with over-the-counter medicines. Some people get it more often as part of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other conditions.

Symptoms

You may have:

  • Bloating in your belly
  • Cramps
  • Thin or loose stools
  • Watery stools
  • An urgent feeling that you need to have a bowel movement
  • Nausea and throwing up

More serious symptoms include:

  • Blood or mucus in your stool
  • Weight loss
  • Fever

If you have watery stools more than three times a day and you're not drinking enough fluids, you could become dehydrated. That can cause serious complications if it's not treated.

Causes

Usually, diarrhea is caused by a virus that infects your gut. Some people call it "intestinal flu" or "stomach flu."

Other causes include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Allergies to certain foods
  • Diabetes
  • Diseases of the intestines (such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis)
  • Eating foods that upset the digestive system
  • Infection by bacteria (the cause of most types of food poisoning) or other organisms
  • Laxative abuse
  • Medications
  • Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism)
  • Radiation therapy
  • Running (Some people get “runner’s diarrhea” for reasons that aren’t clear)
  • Some cancers
  • Surgery on your digestive system
  • Trouble absorbing certain nutrients, also called “malabsorption”

Diarrhea may also follow constipation, especially for people who have irritable bowel syndrome.

When Should I Call My Doctor?

Call your doctor immediately if you have:

  • Blood in your diarrhea or black, tarry stools
  • A fever that is high (above 101 F) or that lasts more than 24 hours
  • Diarrhea lasting longer than 2 days
  • Nausea or throwing up that prevents you from drinking liquids to replace lost fluids
  • Severe pain in your abdomen or rectum
  • Diarrhea after coming back from a foreign country

Also, call your doctor right away if you have diarrhea and any of these signs of dehydration:

  • Dark urine
  • Smaller than usual amounts of urine or fewer wet diapers than usual in a child
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Dry skin
  • Irritability
  • Confusion

Continued

Treatment

If your case is mild, you may not need to take anything. Or you can take an over-the-counter medicine such as bismuth subsalicylate or loperamide, which are available as liquids or tablets. Follow the instructions on the package.

You also need to stay hydrated. You should drink at least six 8-ounce glasses of fluids each day. Choose fruit juice without pulp, broth, or soda (without caffeine). Chicken broth (without the fat), tea with honey, and sports drinks are also good choices. Instead of drinking liquids with your meals, drink liquids between meals. Sip small amounts of fluids often.

How Can I Feel Better?

Your rectal area may become sore because of all the bowel movements diarrhea brings. And you may have itching, burning, or pain when you go to the bathroom.

For relief, take a warm bath. Afterwards, pat the area dry (do not rub) with a clean, soft towel. You may also want to use a hemorrhoid cream or white petroleum jelly on the affected area.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on October 06, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.

American Academy of Family Physicians.

Sullivan, S. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, March 1992.

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