Diarrhea FAQs

What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is frequent, loose and watery bowel movements, also called stools. Stools contain what is left after your digestive system absorbs nutrients and fluids from what you eat and drink. If your body does not absorb the fluids, or if your digestive system produces extra fluids, stools will be loose and watery. Loose stools contain more water, salts, and minerals and weigh more than solid stools.

Diarrhea that lasts one or two days is called acute diarrhea. Diarrhea that lasts for at least four weeks is called chronic diarrhea. Chronic diarrhea symptoms may be continual or they may come and go. 

What causes diarrhea?

As long as diarrhea goes away within one or two days, finding the cause is not usually necessary. Sometimes no cause can be found. Common causes of diarrhea include:

  • bacteria from contaminated food or water
  • viruses that cause illnesses such as the flu
  • parasites, which are tiny organisms found in contaminated food or water
  • medicines such as antibiotics
  • problems digesting certain foods
  • diseases that affect the stomach, small intestine, or colon, such as Crohn’s disease
  • problems with how the colon functions, caused by disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome

What symptoms might I have with diarrhea?

In addition to passing frequent, loose stools, other possible symptoms include:

  • cramps or pain in the abdomen—the area between the chest and hips
  • an urgent need to use the bathroom
  • loss of bowel control

You may feel sick to your stomach or become dehydrated. If a virus or bacteria is the cause of your diarrhea, you may have fever and chills and bloody stools. 

When should I see a healthcare provider?

You should see a healthcare provider if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • signs of dehydration
  • diarrhea for more than two days
  • severe pain in your abdomen or rectum
  • a fever of 102 degrees or higher
  • stools containing blood or pus
  • stools that are black and tarry

Diarrhea often goes away by itself, but it may be a sign of a more serious problem. 

 

  • Last updated: 06/20/2013
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Dehydration

Being dehydrated means your body does not have enough fluid to work properly. Every time you have a bowel movement, you lose fluids. Diarrhea causes you to lose even more fluids. You also lose salts and minerals such as sodium, chloride, and potassium. These salts and minerals affect the amount of water that stays in your body.

Dehydration can be serious, especially for children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems. Signs of dehydration in adults include:

  • being thirsty
  • urinating less often than usual
  • having dark-colored urine
  • having dry skin
  • feeling tired
  • feeling dizzy or fainting

Also, when you are dehydrated, your skin does not flatten back to normal right away after being gently pinched and released.