Diarrhea: Why It Happens and How To Treat It

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

It typically lasts two to three days, and if you need to treat it, there are over-the-counter medicines, which means they don't need a prescription. 

For many people, diarrhea strikes once or twice each year. If you have certain conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, it can happen more often. 

What Are the Symptoms?

You may have:

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

More serious symptoms include:

  • Blood, mucus, or undigested food in the stool
  • Weight loss
  • Fever

If you have watery stools more than three times a day and you don't drink enough fluids, you could become dehydrated. That can be dangerous if it's not treated.

What Causes Diarrhea?

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

It can also happen due to:

  • 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”)
  • Some cancers
  • Surgery on your digestive system
  • Trouble absorbing some nutrients (Doctors call this “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 vomiting that prevents you from drinking liquids to replace lost fluids
  • Severe pain in your belly or rectum
  • Diarrhea when you come back from overseas travel

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 baby or young child
  • Fast heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Dry skin
  • You feel irritable or confused

 

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What’s the 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 (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate) or loperamide (Imodium) which are available as liquids or tablets. Follow the instructions on the package.

If you have itching, burning, soreness, or pain in your rectal area because you have a lot of bowel movements, try these tips to feel better: 

  • Take a warm bath. Afterwards, pat the area dry (do not rub) with a clean, soft towel.
  • Use a hemorrhoid cream or try white petroleum jelly.

Do your best to stay hydrated. You should drink at least six 8-ounce glasses of fluid 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.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 27, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.

American Academy of Family Physicians.

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