Diarrhea is loose, watery stools (bowel movements). You have diarrhea if you have loose stools three or more times in one day. Acute diarrhea is diarrhea that lasts a short time. It is a common problem. It usually lasts about one or two days, but it may last longer. Then it goes away on its own.
Diarrhea lasting more than a few days may be a sign of a more serious problem. Chronic diarrhea -- diarrhea that lasts at least four weeks -- can be a symptom of a chronic disease. Chronic diarrhea symptoms may be continual, or they may come and go.
What causes diarrhea?
The most common causes of diarrhea include
- Bacteria from contaminated food or water
- Viruses such as the flu, norovirus, or rotavirus . Rotavirus is the most common cause of acute diarrhea in children.
- Parasites, which are tiny organisms found in contaminated food or water
- Medicines such as antibiotics, cancer drugs, and antacids that contain magnesium
- Food intolerances and sensitivities, which are problems digesting certain ingredients or foods.
An example is lactose intolerance.
- Diseases that affect the stomach, small intestine, or colon, such as Crohn's disease
- Problems with how the colon functions, such as irritable bowel syndrome
Diarrhea can cause dehydration, which means that your body does not have enough fluid to work properly. Dehydration can be serious, especially for children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.
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When should I see a doctor for diarrhea?
Although it is usually not harmful, diarrhea can become dangerous or signal a more serious problem. Contact your health care provider if you have
- Signs of dehydration
- Diarrhea for more than 2 days, if you are an adult. For children, contact the provider if it lasts more than 24 hours.
- Severe pain in your abdomen or rectum (for adults)
- A fever of 102 degrees or higher
- Stools containing blood or pus
- Stools that are black and tarry
If children have diarrhea, parents or caregivers should not hesitate to call a health care provider. Diarrhea can be especially dangerous in newborns and infants.
How is the cause of diarrhea diagnosed?
To find the cause of diarrhea, your health care provider may
- Do a physical exam
- Ask about any medicines you are taking
- Test your stool or blood to look for bacteria, parasites, or other signs of disease or infection
- Ask you to stop eating certain foods to see whether your diarrhea goes away
If you have chronic diarrhea, your health care provider may perform other tests to look for signs of disease.
You can help prevent traveler's diarrhea by being careful about what you eat and drink when you are in developing countries:
- Use only bottled or purified water for drinking, making ice cubes, and brushing your teeth
- If you do use tap water, boil it or use iodine tablets
- Make sure that the cooked food you eat is fully cooked and served hot
- Avoid unwashed or unpeeled raw fruits and vegetables