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Diarrhea, Age 12 and Older - Topic Overview

Diarrhea occurs when there is an increase in the number of bowel movements or bowel movements are more watery and loose than normal. When the intestines push stools through the bowel before the water in the stool can be reabsorbed, diarrhea occurs. It can also occur when inflammation of the bowel lining causes excess fluid to leak into the stool. Abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, or a fever may occur along with the diarrhea.

Diarrhea is one of the most commonly occurring health problems affecting all ages. Most adults will have 4 episodes of diarrhea each year. Diarrhea that comes on suddenly may last up to 14 days.

Diarrhea has many causes.

  • Diarrhea is often caused by stomach flu (gastroenteritis) or food poisoning. Diarrhea is your body's way of quickly clearing viruses, bacteria, or toxins from the digestive tract. Since most cases of diarrhea are viral, they will clear up in a few days with good home treatment. E. coli is a common bacteria that causes diarrhea. E. coli infection is related to improper food preparation.
  • Drinking untreated water or unpasteurized dairy products can cause viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections, such as Giardia lamblia. Giardia lambliaparasite can cause diarrhea that develops 1 to 4 weeks later. These infections can also occur when you use untreated water to brush your teeth, wash your dishes or vegetables, or make ice for drinks.
  • Many prescription and nonprescription medicines can cause diarrhea.
    • Antibiotics may cause mild diarrhea that usually clears up without treatment. A more serious type of diarrhea caused by the bacteria Clostridium difficile (sometimes called C-diff) may occur while taking an antibiotic or shortly after finishing the antibiotic.
    • Laxatives, such as Correctol, Dulcolax, Ex-Lax, or Feen-a-Mint, may cause diarrhea.
  • Using too much of products that contain sorbitol (such as chewing gum) or fructose can cause diarrhea.
  • Some people get diarrhea while traveling (traveler's diarrhea).
  • For some people, emotional stress, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, or food digestion problems (such as lactose intolerance) cause diarrhea.
  • Repeated episodes of diarrhea may be caused by inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Diarrhea may also be caused by malabsorption problems and certain types of cancer.
  • Diarrhea may develop after stomach, bowel, or gallbladder surgery, or after bariatric surgery for obesity.

Many times the exact cause of diarrhea is hard to determine. Almost everyone has an occasional bout of diarrhea. Although diarrhea is annoying, most cases are not serious and will clear up with home treatment.

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: November 14, 2014
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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