Diarrhea describes bowel movements that are loose and watery. It is common and often not serious. Many people will have diarrhea once or twice each year. Sometimes diarrhea is a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome or other chronic digestive condition.
Symptoms of diarrhea can be broken down into uncomplicated (non-serious) and complicated, which may be a sign of a more serious illness.
Symptoms of uncomplicated diarrhea include:
- Abdominal bloating or cramps
- Thin, loose or watery stool
- Sense of urgency to have a bowel movement
In addition the above, the symptoms of complicated diarrhea include:
- Blood, mucus, or undigested food in the stool
- Unexplained weight loss or fever
The most common cause of diarrhea is a GI virus. The infection is sometimes called "stomach flu." Occasional diarrhea may also be caused by:
- Infection by bacteria (the cause of most types of food poisoning)
- Eating foods that upset the digestive system
Diarrhea can also indicate a digestive condition, especially when it's persistent and/or occurs with other symptoms like bloody stools and unexplained weight loss. Potential gastrointestinal conditions that can cause persistent diarrhea include:
If you have a mild case of diarrhea, you can just let it run its course and manage symptoms with over-the-counter medicine. You should drink at least six 8-ounce glasses of fluid per day. Chicken broth, tea with honey and sports drinks are also good choices. Instead of drinking liquids with your meals, drink liquids between meals.
Frequently Asked Questions about Diarrhea
What causes diarrhea?
Infections, travelers’ diarrhea, and side effects of medicines are the most common causes of diarrhea. Three types of infections can cause diarrhea, including:
- Viral infections, especially viruses such as norovirus and rotavirus
- Bacterial infections from contaminated food and water; common bacteria that causes diarrhea include Escherichia coli (E. coli), Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Shigella
- Parasitic infection from contaminated food and water, such as the parasites Cryptosporidium enteritis, Giardia lamblia, and Entamoeba histolytica
Travelers’ diarrhea develops after eating or drinking foods and beverages contaminated with viruses, bacteria, or parasites. This type of diarrhea can be a problem for people traveling to developing nations.
Certain medications can cause diarrhea. These medications include antibiotics, antacids containing magnesium, and medicines used to treat cancer.
Some health conditions can cause diarrhea. These conditions may include Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcerative colitis.
Can stress cause diarrhea?
Yes, stress can cause diarrhea. Stress is the body’s reaction to a perceived threat or other types of pressure. When your brain detects a threat, it releases a burst of hormones associated with the “fight or flight” response. These hormones increase your heart rate and blood pressure to give your muscles and organs the oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood they need to take flight or fight back.
Your brain also sends stress signals to your digestive tract, which causes the characteristic feeling of having “butterflies in your stomach.” Your gut responds to these signals by releasing hormones that slow down your stomach and small intestine; these hormones also speed up function in the large intestine, which is the organ responsible for managing the amount of water in your stool. Speeding up the large intestine prevents it from taking water out of your stool, causing diarrhea.
What stops diarrhea?
Eating certain foods can stop diarrhea. Doctors often recommend the BRAT diet for diarrhea. The acronym stands for bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. These foods work to stop diarrhea by giving the large intestine time to heal.
Over-the-counter medications can also stop diarrhea. Loperamide (Imodium) slows down the function of the large intestine, giving the organ more time to absorb fluids from stool. Bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate or Pepto-Bismol) balances the way fluid moves through the digestive tract, reduces inflammation, and keeps bacteria and viruses from growing in the stomach or intestine.
Doctors can treat diarrhea. The treatment depends largely on the cause. They may prescribe antibiotics to treat diarrhea caused by bacterial or parasitic infections, for example, or medications that treat Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or ulcerative colitis.