What You Should Know About Diarrhea

We want to talk about a subject most people don’t like to talk about — diarrhea. What causes it? What can we do about it? Let’s find out.

Diarrhea is loose, watery bowel movements more than three times in a day. You may also have cramps, bloating, nausea and an urgent need to have a bowel movement. Diarrhea usually lasts only a day or two. However, it can last longer depending on the cause.

If your child has diarrhea, call your health care provider. Diarrhea can be serious for children.

What Causes Diarrhea?

The National Institutes of Health says it can come from:

  • Bacteria in contaminated food or water.
  • Viruses that cause illnesses such as the flu.
  • Parasites – tiny organisms in contaminated food and water.
  • Medicines such as antibiotics.
  • Problems with digesting certain foods.
  • Diseases that affect the stomach, small intestine or colon, such as Crohn’s disease.
  • Problems with how the colon functions, caused by disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Sometimes the cause is unknown. If diarrhea goes away in a day or two, knowing the cause usually isn’t necessary.

How Can I Treat Diarrhea?

  • Drink plenty of clear liquids such as water to help you stay hydrated. You also need to replace salts and minerals your body loses.
  • Adults can also drink salty broths, fruit juices, sports drinks and sodas without caffeine.
  • Children can drink water and rehydration solutions that contain salts and minerals, such as Pedialyte, Naturalyte, Infalyte and CeraLyte.
  • Eat soft, bland foods such as bananas, plain rice, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers, cooked carrots and baked chicken without the skin or fat.

Avoid caffeine drinks such as coffee and colas, high-fat and greasy foods, sweets and high-fiber foods such as citrus fruits. They can make diarrhea worse. Once the diarrhea stops, you can go back to your regular foods.

An over-the-counter medicine might help adults with diarrhea. Consider loperamide (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate). Do not use these products if you have bloody diarrhea. Check with a health care provider before giving to children.

Some medical conditions and infections (bacterial or parasitic) can become worse when using these medications. They can stop your body from getting rid of the cause of diarrhea.

When Should I See My Health Care Provider?

If you have signs of dehydration in spite of drinking plenty of fluids, you should contact your health care provider. Dehydration can be serious for children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems.

See your health care provider if you have:

  • Signs of dehydration.
  • Diarrhea for more than two days.
  • Severe pain in your abdomen or rectum.
  • A fever of 102 degrees or higher.
  • Stools containing blood or pus.
  • Stools that are black and tarry.

If a child has diarrhea, the guidelines for seeing a health care provider are the same, except the timeline is 24 hours rather than two days. Children can become dehydrated more easily, so it’s important to get treatment quickly if your baby is 6 months or younger.

Contact your health care provider if you have a concern about diarrhea, especially if a child has the condition. Otherwise, with some simple measures and a couple of days time, the condition should pass and you’ll be back to normal.

Can I Prevent Diarrhea?


Rotavirus diarrhea is common in children. It results from a virus. Ask your health care provider about RotaTeq and Rotarix, two vaccines that protect against rotavirus.

Traveler’s diarrhea can crop up when people visit developing countries where harmful bacteria, viruses or parasites are found in the water.

How you can prevent traveler’s diarrhea when in developing countries:

  • Don’t use tap water to drink, brush your teeth or in ice cubes.
  • Don’t eat or drink unpasteurized milk or milk products.
  • Don’t eat raw fruits or vegetables unless they can be peeled and you peel them yourself.
  • Don’t eat raw or rare meat or fish.
  • Don’t eat meat or shellfish that is not hot when served to you.
  • Don’t eat food from street vendors.

Drink bottled water, carbonated soft drinks and hot drinks such as coffee and tea.

Before you travel, ask your health care provider about steps you can take to avoid traveler’s diarrhea. Taking antibiotics before traveling can help prevent or shorten episodes of diarrhea.

Meet the Author

Razieh Hadian Jazi, MD is a Family Medicine Physician at Aurora Health Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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