What I need to know about Diarrhea

What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea means that you have a change in your bowel movements and pass unusually loose stools. Stool is what is left after your digestive system (stomach, small intestine, and colon) absorbs nutrients and fluids from what you eat and drink. Stool passes out of the body through the rectum. If fluids are not absorbed, or if your digestive system produces extra fluids, stools will be loose and watery. Loose stools are larger than usual. People with diarrhea often have frequent bowel movements and may pass more than a quart of watery stool a day.

What other symptoms accompany diarrhea?

People who have diarrhea may also have

Also, people with diarrhea may feel sick to their stomach or be dehydrated.

What is dehydration?

Dehydration means that your body does not have enough fluid to work properly. Every time you breathe out, sweat, urinate, or have a bowel movement, you lose fluid. Diarrhea increases the amount of fluid lost in bowel movements. Along with the fluid, you lose salts-chemicals that your body needs to work properly. The loss of fluids and salts can be serious, especially for babies and young children and for older people.

The signs of dehydration in adults are

In addition, the kidneys could stop working.

The signs of dehydration in babies and young children are

Also, when children have diarrhea, their skin seems to lose its elasticity. It does not flatten back to normal when pinched and released.

Who gets diarrhea?

Anyone can get diarrhea. This common problem can last a day or two or for months or years, depending on the cause. Most people get better on their own, but diarrhea can be serious for babies and older people if lost fluids are not replaced. Many people throughout the world die from diarrhea because of the large volume of water lost and the accompanying loss of salts.

What causes diarrhea?

Diarrhea can be caused by

Sometimes no cause for diarrhea can be found.

When should I talk to a doctor?

Diarrhea often goes away by itself, but it can be a sign of a more serious problem. You should talk to your doctor if your diarrhea lasts for more than 3 days. You should also call your doctor if you have

Children younger than 12 become dehydrated much more easily than adults. If your child does not improve after 24 hours or has any of the following symptoms along with diarrhea, call the doctor. (This is especially important if your child is 6 months old or younger.)

What tests might be done?

Your doctor may want to perform tests to find the cause of the diarrhea:

For a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy, the doctor uses a thin, flexible, lighted tube with a lens on the end.

How is diarrhea treated?

In many cases of diarrhea, replacing lost fluid and salts is the only treatment needed.

Taking medicine to stop diarrhea can be helpful in some cases. Medicines that are available without a doctor's prescription include loperamide (Imodium) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol and Kaopectate). Stop taking these medicines if symptoms get worse or if diarrhea lasts more than 2 days.

If a particular food or medicine is the cause, you should avoid it.

Also, while you are waiting for the diarrhea to end, you should avoid foods that can make it worse:

As you feel better, begin eating soft, bland food, such as bananas, plain rice, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers, cooked carrots, and baked chicken without the skin or fat. Children can eat bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast (sometimes called the BRAT diet).


Traveler's Diarrhea

People who are visiting other countries and eat food or drink water contaminated by bacteria, viruses, or parasites can develop traveler's diarrhea.

You can prevent it by being careful:

You can safely drink bottled water, carbonated soft drinks, and hot drinks like coffee or tea.


Points to Remember

The U.S. Government does not endorse or favor any specific commercial product or company. Trade, proprietary, or company names appearing in this document are used only because they are considered necessary in the context of the information provided. If a product is not mentioned, the omission does not mean or imply that the product is unsatisfactory.


NIH Publication No. 05–5176
January 2005

The information provided here should not be used for diagnosis or treatment. A licensed physician should be consulted for the diagnosis and treatment of Addison's Disease and all diseases. TELEPLEXUS, Inc. does not warrant that this information meets any particular standard or that it is free from errors.

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