Overview of Diarrhea

Diarrhea is characterized by frequent (i.e., more than three times per day) bowel movements and loose, watery, unformed stool. Diarrhea is a common symptom of digestive system disorders in adults and children.

Diarrhea can be acute or chronic. Acute diarrhea lasts 1–2 days and usually resolves without treatment. It often is caused by viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract; intolerance to foods, such as lactose (sugar present in milk) and gluten (protein in wheat); and medications (e.g., antibiotics).

Chronic diarrhea lasts more than two days and may indicate a more serious medical condition (e.g., celiac disease, Crohn's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome). Chemotherapy (drugs used to treat cancer) also can cause chronic diarrhea. Chronic diarrhea increases the risk for dehydration (excessive fluid loss), which requires prompt medical treatment.

Some patients experience diarrhea following stomach, colon, or gallbladder surgery. People who travel to underdeveloped areas of the world are at increased risk for diarrhea from contaminated food and water (called travelers' diarrhea). Good hygiene (e.g., frequent, thorough hand washing; proper handling of food) often can help reduce the risk for diarrhea.

Symptoms that can accompany diarrhea include abdominal pain and cramping, bloating, and nausea. Complications can be serious and include dehydration and blood or pus in the stool. Patients who experience diarrhea that lasts longer than three days, or who develop complications or severe pain should contact a health care provider.

Dehydration is more common in young children and in the elderly. Signs include the following:

  • Dark-colored urine
  • Dry skin
  • Excessive thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Fever above 102° F
  • Headache
  • Lethargy

In young children, other signs of dehydration can include irritability; lack of tears; dry diapers for three or more hours; and sunken eyes, cheeks, or abdomen.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 28 Feb 2008

Last Modified: 11 Sep 2015