What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is a common gastrointestinal disorder that is characterized by loose, watery stools. Most people get diarrhea once or more each year.

If left untreated, diarrhea can lead to dehydration and can be life-threatening.

Viral diarrhea can be prevented by diligent hand washing or hand sanitizing.

Constipation Abdominal Pain

Causes of diarrhea

Diarrhea is typically caused by a virus in the intestines or stomach.

There are many conditions that can cause diarrhea including:

  • Lactose intolerance
  • Celiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome

Other factors that can contribute to a diarrhea episode include:

  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Food allergies
  • Diabetes or prediabetes
  • Medications such as antibiotics, cancer drugs or antacids with magnesium
  • Certain foods or substances found in fructose and artificial sweeteners
  • Laxative abuse

Risk factors for diarrhea

There are a variety of factors that can increase your chances of getting diarrhea, including:

  • Age — diarrhea is more common in younger children under the age of three and elderly patients.
  • Comorbidity — if you have a serious condition such as diabetes or kidney diseases you might be more likely to have diarrhea.
  • Environment — people who live in or travel to areas with poor sanitation are more likely to develop diarrhea.

Symptoms of diarrhea

Signs or symptoms of diarrhea can come on quickly and may include:

  • Loose, watering bowel movements
  • Abdominal pain or cramps
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Nausea
  • Urgent need to have a bowel movement
  • Fever
  • Bloody stool

Diagnosis of diarrhea

Diarrhea can be diagnosed in a physical exam with your primary care physician. Your doctor will take a full medical history and may order tests to determine what is causing your diarrhea.

Tests may include:

  • Blood test — a complete blood count can be performed to determine the underlying condition causing your diarrhea.
  • Stool test — determines what is causing the diarrhea, potentially a bacteria or parasite.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy — allows your doctor to see inside the colon to determine the cause of your symptoms.

Treatment for diarrhea

Most people do not need medical treatment for diarrhea. Acute episodes of diarrhea typically resolve without treatment within a couple of days.

If you have persistent diarrhea, your doctor may recommend the following treatments:

  • Over-the-counter medication such as psyllium or bismuth subsalicylate
  • Probiotics — taken as a pill or powder, increase healthy bacteria in the digestive system
  • Antibiotics — for diarrhea caused by bacteria or parasites
  • Hydration — replacing lost fluids is crucial in treating diarrhea

Diarrhea is typically a symptom of an underlying condition, which can be relieved by treating the underlying condition. If symptoms are severe, you may be referred to a gastroenterologist who can diagnose and treat the full range of digestive disorders.

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