Updated July 2021
Almost everyone has an occasional bout of diarrhea. It is inconvenient, and many times, the exact cause is difficult to determine. Diarrhea can often come out of nowhere and is frequently a symptom of food poisoning, a virus, or even stress.
Diarrhea is one of the most commonly occurring health problems affecting all ages. Most adults will have at least four episodes of diarrhea each year. These episodes can occur suddenly and may last up to 14 days.
Diarrhea is when you have an increased number of bowel movements or you have bowel movements that are watery or loose. It’s caused by attenuated water absorption or inappropriate water secretion by the intestines.
It is your body’s way of quickly clearing viruses, bacteria, or toxins from the digestive tract. Since most cases of acute diarrhea are viral, the symptoms will clear up in a few days with good home treatment.
However, diarrhea that lasts longer than a few days may be a sign of a more serious health condition.
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The most common symptom of diarrhea is an increase in bowel movements, but you also may experience several other symptoms:
- Abdominal cramps
- Abdominal pain
- Watery, loose stools
- An urgent need to go to the bathroom
- Blood in the stools
- Mucus in the stools
What Causes Diarrhea?
Diarrhea has many potential causes, ranging from infections to reactions to medications to stress. Some causes of diarrhea include:
- Viral or bacterial infections, including food poisoning and the stomach flu
- Food poisoning
- Food allergies
- Some forms of inflammatory bowel disease
- Following a cholecystectomy
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Some prescription and over-the-counter medications and antibiotics
- Alcohol abuse
- Anxiety/emotional stress
Diarrhea should resolve itself within a few days, although in some cases it can last longer. Chronic diarrhea can last four weeks or longer and may be a sign of another health condition.
How Do You Treat Diarrhea?
When experiencing diarrhea, try these coping strategies to manage your symptoms:
- Rehydrate: Drink water and electrolytes to replenish fluids lost through diarrhea.
- Use medications: Some over-the-counter medicines treat diarrhea. These include bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol, Kaopectate) or loperamide (Immodium). Do not use loperamide if you have a fever or your stools are bloody.
- Take probiotics: These are living microorganisms that can help to promote good gut health. Probiotics are naturally present in some fermented foods, like yogurt or certain cheeses. There are also probiotic supplements.
- Eat bland, safe foods: Stick with soup, broth, and salty crackers. Slowly add in yogurt and complex carbohydrates like rice and bread.
- Avoid trigger foods: Steer clear of foods and drinks containing caffeine, lots of sugar, fried and spicy foods, dairy products, and artificial sweetners.
When should you call a doctor about diarrhea?
Many things can cause diarrhea, from environmental factors to chronic conditions. Pay attention to your symptoms and be sure to keep yourself hydrated and nourished until it clears up. If the problem continues longer than two days, contact your doctor. If your child has diarrhea for longer than 24 hours, contact a doctor.
You also should call your doctor if you experience any of the following:
- Severe abdominal or rectal pain
- A fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
- Bloody stools, or stools that have pus in them
- Black, tarry stools
If you are experiencing diarrhea and other digestive symptoms, the experts the UPMC Digestive Disorders Center can help. To make an appointment, call 1-866-442-7876 or fill out our appointment request form.
About Digestive Disorders
The UPMC Digestive Disorders Center cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.