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TriStar Centennial Medical Center



Diarrhea is more than 3 loose, liquid stools in a single day. It depletes the body of fluids and electrolytes. Diarrhea can be:

  • Acute—Occurring suddenly and lasting briefly
  • Chronic—Long-term
  • Recurring—Coming and going

If the body loses too much fluid, it can become dehydrated . Dehydration is especially dangerous for babies, young children, and elderly people.


Causes may include:

Risk Factors

Risk factors include:

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


Symptoms may include:

  • Frequent, loose, liquid stools
  • Abdominal pain, cramping
  • Urgent need to defecate
  • Blood and/or mucus in stool
  • Fever
  • Dehydration
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Weight loss

When Should I Call My Doctor?

Call your doctor if you:

  • Have diarrhea that lasts longer than 3 days
  • Are not able to eat or drink to stay hydrated
  • Have a fever

Call your doctor if your young child:

  • Has diarrhea lasting longer than a day
  • Has pus in stool
  • Is dehydrated—no wet diapers in three hours, dry mouth, crying without tears, skin that stays up after being pinched
  • Is sleepy or irritable
  • Has a fever

When Should I Call for Medical Help Immediately?

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

  • Severe abdominal pain and cramping
  • Bloody or black stool


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

To determine the cause of your diarrhea, the doctor will ask questions, such as:

  • Does anyone else in your family have diarrhea?
  • What kinds of food have you eaten recently?
  • Do you drink well water?
  • Do your children attend daycare?
  • Have you traveled recently?
  • Do you use laxatives?
  • What medications do you take?
  • Do you have any symptoms other than diarrhea, such as fever, rash, or aching joints?
  • What is your sexual history?
  • Have you ever had abdominal surgery?

Your bodily fluids, tissues, and waste products may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Laboratory analysis of a stool sample
  • Blood tests
  • Biopsy

You may need to have your rectum and colon examined. This can be done with:

You may need to have images taken of your colon. This can be done with:

Barium Enema
Radiology colon
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Treating the underlying condition may help to relieve the diarrhea.

General recommendations for treating diarrhea include:

Drink Plenty of Fluids

Plain water will not replace the electrolytes lost through diarrhea. For adults and children, look for age-specific oral rehydration solutions. Avoid fruit juices, soda, and drinks containing caffeine. For young children, continue with breastfeeding or formula feeding as advised by your child's doctor.

Ask Your Doctor What You Should Eat

Doctors differ in their approach to treating diarrhea. For example, your doctor may recommend that you:

  • Drink only clear fluids during severe phases of diarrhea.
  • Avoid certain foods, such as: spicy foods, fatty foods, greasy foods, high-fiber foods, dairy products in large amounts, and caffeinated drinks.
  • Eat certain foods, such as: complex carbohydrates like pasta and rice, yogurt, fruits and vegetables, and lean meats

Ask your doctor which dietary guidelines you should follow. As your diarrhea subsides, your usual healthy foods can be reintroduced.


Your doctor may advise:

  • Antidiarrheal medication
  • Antibiotics—May be needed if a bacterial infection is causing diarrhea
  • Probiotics may be beneficial in some cases

Children should not be given medication unless specifically advised by the doctor.


Diarrhea can cause severe dehydration. You may need to be hospitalized. Fluids will be delivered through an IV.


To reduce your chance of getting diarrhea:

  • Practice good handwashing.
  • Practice safe food preparation and food storage.
  • If you have diarrhea, do not prepare food for others.
  • If you are traveling:
    • Drink bottled water.
    • Use bottled water when brushing your teeth.
    • Avoid drinks that contain ice.
    • Do not eat food purchased from street vendors.
    • Do not eat raw vegetables or fruits. All produce should be peeled and/or cooked.
    • Make sure meats and seafood are cooked thoroughly.
    • Eat only pasteurized dairy products.
    • If you eat seafood, make sure it is very hot.

Rotavirus is a common cause of diarrhea in children under 5 years of age. There is a vaccine to prevent rotavirus. The first dose is given at age 2 months. Make sure your infant has received this vaccine.

Revision Information

  •—American Academy of Family Physicians

  • National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse

  • The College of Family Physicians of Canada

  • Health Canada

  • Celiac disease. American Gastroenterological Association website. Available at: Accessed December 18, 2014.

  • Diarrhea. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: Accessed December 18, 2014.

  • Diarrhea. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: Updated November 25, 2013. Accessed December 18, 2014.

  • King CK, Glass R, Bresee JS, Duggan C. Managing acute gastroenteritis among children: oral rehydration, maintenance, and nutritional therapy. MMWR. 2003 Nov 21;52(RR16):1-16

  • Rotavirus vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: Updated February 3, 2014. Accessed December 18, 2014.

  • 1/4/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Allen S, Martinez E, Gregorio G, Dans L. Probiotics for treating acute infectious diarrhoea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(12):CD003048.

  • 4/14/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Magill SS, Edwards JR, et al. Multistate point-prevalence survey of health care-associated infections. N Engl J Med. 2014;370(13):1198-1208.

The health information in this Health Library is provided by a third party. TriStar Health does not in any way create the content of this information. It is provided solely for informational purposes. It does not constitute medical advice and is not intended to be a substitute for proper medical care provided by a physician. Always consult with your doctor for appropriate examinations, treatment, testing, and care recommendations. Do not rely on information on this site as a tool for self-diagnosis. If you have a medical emergency, call 911.