Diarrhea is when you pass loose or watery stool. In some people, diarrhea is mild and goes away in a few days. In other people, it may last longer. Diarrhea can make you feel weak and dehydrated.
The most common cause of diarrhea is the stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis). This mild viral infection goes away on its own within a few days.
Eating or drinking food or water that contains certain types of bacteria or parasites can also lead to diarrhea. This problem may be called food poisoning.
Certain medications may also cause diarrhea, including:
- Certain antibiotics
- Chemotherapy drugs for cancer
- Laxatives containing magnesium
Diarrhea may also be caused by certain medical disorders, including:
- Celiac disease
- Inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis)
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Lactose intolerance (which causes problems with milk and other dairy products)
- Malabsorption syndromes
Less common causes of diarrhea include:
- Carcinoid syndrome
- Disorders of the nerves that supply the intestines
- Removal of part of the stomach (gastrectomy) or small intestine
- Radiation therapy
When you have diarrhea, you will need to learn:
- To drink plenty of clean fluids to prevent dehydration (meaning your body does not have the proper amount of water and fluids)
- Which foods you should or should not eat: Avoid dairy, raw fruits and vegetables which are often hard to digest. Bananas are often OK.
- What danger signs to watch out for
Avoid medicines for diarrhea that you can buy without a prescription, unless your doctor tells you to use them. These drugs can make some infections worse.
If you have a long-term form of diarrhea, such as diarrhea caused by irritable bowel syndrome, changes to your diet and lifestyle may help.
When to call your health care provider
Call your health care provider right away if you shows signs of dehydration:
- Decreased urine (fewer wet diapers in infants)
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Dry mouth
- Sunken eyes
- Few tears when crying
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you have:
- Blood or pus in your stools
- Black stools
- Stomach pain that does not go away after a bowel movement
- Diarrhea with a fever above 101°F
- Recently traveled to a foreign country and developed diarrhea
Call your health provider if the diarrhea gets worse or does not get better in five days for adults.
Over-the-counter supplements that contain healthy bacteria, called probiotics, may help prevent diarrhea associated with antibiotics. Yogurt with active or live cultures is a good source of these healthy bacteria.
The following healthy steps can help you prevent illnesses that cause diarrhea:
- Wash your hands often, especially after going to the bathroom and before eating
- Use alcohol-based hand gel frequently
When traveling to underdeveloped areas, follow the steps below to avoid diarrhea:
- Drink only bottled water and do not use ice, unless it is made from bottled or purified water
- Do not eat uncooked vegetables or fruits that do not have peels
- Do not eat raw shellfish or undercooked meat
- Do not consume dairy products