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Health Information Center


  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:




Diarrhea is more than three loose, liquid stools in one day. It causes the body to lose fluids and electrolytes. Diarrhea can be:

  • Acute—sudden and brief
  • Chronic—long term
  • Recurring—diarrhea that comes and goes over time

Fluid loss can lead to dehydration . This can be dangerous for babies, young children, and older adults.


Causes may be:

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of this problem are:

  • Traveling to a developing country where the water and food supply may be contaminated
  • Taking certain medicines
  • Being in a hospital
  • Having a severely weakened immune system, such as with AIDS or after an organ transplant


Problems may be:

  • Frequent loose, liquid stools
  • Belly pain and cramping
  • An urgent need to have a bowel movement
  • Blood and mucus in the stool
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Weight loss


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may insert a gloved finger into the rectum to examine it. This is called a digital rectal exam.

The doctor may ask these questions to find the cause of diarrhea:

  • Does anyone else in the family have diarrhea?
  • What kinds of food and drinks have you had?
  • Do your children attend daycare?
  • Have you traveled recently?
  • What is your sexual history?

Blood tests and stool tests may be done.

The rectum and colon may need to be examined. This can be done with:

A biopsy may also be taken.

Images may be taken of the colon. This can be done with:

Barium Enema.

Radiology colon http://services.epnet.com/getimage.aspx?imageiid=7410 7410 si55551812.jpg si55551812.jpg NULL jpg si55551812.jpg NULL \\hgfiler01a\intellect\images\si55551812.jpg NULL 11 NULL 2008-11-07 253 390 7410_11900 Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Any underlying cause will need to be treated.

The goal of treatment is to ease diarrhea and prevent dehydration. Choices are:

  • An oral rehydration solution to replace lost fluids
  • Dietary changes, such as a clear diet and avoiding foods that trigger diarrhea
  • Antidiarrheal medicine
  • Probiotics


The risk of diarrhea may be lowered by:

  • Practicing proper hand hygiene
  • Practicing safe food preparation and storage
  • Taking care when traveling, such as:
    • Drinking bottled water and avoiding drinks with ice
    • Avoiding foods from street vendors
    • Not eating raw vegetables or fruits
    • Cooking foods well
    • Only eating pasteurized dairy products

Rotavirus is a common cause of diarrhea in children under 5 years of age. The rotavirus vaccine can prevent it.

When Should I Call My Doctor?

Call your doctor if you:

  • Have diarrhea that lasts longer than three days
  • Are not able to eat or drink to stay hydrated
  • Have a fever

Call your doctor if your young child:

  • Has diarrhea that lasts longer than a day
  • Has pus in his or her stool
  • Does not have wet diapers
  • Is crying without tears
  • Is unusually sleepy or irritable
  • Has a fever

When Should I Call for Medical Help Right Away?

Call for medical help or go to the emergency room right away if you or your child has:

  • Severe belly pain and cramping
  • Bloody or black stool




  • Acute diarrhea in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/approach-to/acute-diarrhea-in-adults. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • Diarrhea. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/diarrhea.html. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • Diarrhea. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/diarrhea. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • Rotavirus vaccines. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/vaccines/rotavirus-vaccine.html. Accessed February 9, 2021.
  • Shane AL, Mody RK, et al. 2017 Infectious Diseases Society of America Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Infectious Diarrhea. Clin Infect Dis. 2017 Nov 29;65(12):e45-e80.


  • James P. Cornell, MD
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.