Diarrhea is an increase in the wateriness, volume, or frequency of bowel movements. When you have diarrhea, foods and fluid pass too quickly, or in too large an amount through your colon, and your body does not absorb the fluid. Almost everyone has an episode of diarrhea at some time.
Acute diarrhea is uncomfortable, but usually is not serious and will go away in a few days on its own. You should see a doctor, however, if your stool contains blood, if the diarrhea is severe, or if it lasts more than a few days. Children and elderly people are at higher risk of dehydration and should see their doctor sooner.
Signs and Symptoms
Diarrhea is a symptom of another health issue, such as an infection or a virus. Chronic diarrhea, lasting longer than 4 weeks, can be a sign of a serious illness, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Symptoms may include:
- Frequent and loose stools
- Abdominal pain, cramping
- Fever, chills, general sick feeling
- Weight loss
If your child has diarrhea, call your pediatrician if it lasts more than 24 hours, or if your child seems dehydrated. For an infant, this could mean having a dry diaper for several hours or crying without tears.
What Causes It?
Most diarrhea is caused by bacteria, parasites, or viruses, often from food or water. Eating local food and drinking local water during travel can result in "traveler's diarrhea." Diarrhea can also be caused by:
- Reactions to medications (including some vitamins, minerals, and herbs)
- Reactions to artificial sweeteners (such as sorbitol and mannitol)
- Consuming milk or dairy products if you are lactose-intolerant
Diarrhea that results in blood in the stool, accompanied by fever or abdominal pain, could be caused by intestinal disorders, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or Crohn disease, and requires a doctor's care.