All the Reasons You Might Have Diarrhea and When to Worry

by Jackie Zimmerman Patient Advocate

There are few things guaranteed in life besides death and taxes. Unfortunately, getting diarrhea is probably one of the exceptions. Much like most topics that revolve around our digestive tracts, there is a lot of mystery and stigma around talking about diarrhea, which can lead many people to go long periods of time with an untreated condition.

Why do I have diarrhea?

When researching this article, I found that there are literally hundreds of reasons a person can develop diarrhea. But the ones that are most common are worth talking about. Diarrhea is both a symptom and a sign, which explains why it is often so hard to find a root cause.

According to the American College of Gastroenterology, there are two main types of diarrhea: acute and chronic. Acute diarrhea is defined by symptoms that last two weeks or less, and chronic diarrhea has symptoms that last four weeks or more. If the symptoms last between two and four weeks, it’s called persistent diarrhea.

Common causes of acute diarrhea

Most of the time, acute diarrhea is caused by some sort of virus, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. This could include food poisoning. It also could be caused by medications.

Food poisoning

Food poisoning is contracted by eating contaminated food or drink. Infectious organisms — including bacteria, viruses, and parasites — cause the unpleasant side effects of food poisoning.


Diarrhea is often a side effect of many medications. You may experience it more often if you’re just starting a new medication.

Common causes of chronic diarrhea

Chronic diarrhea is classified as fatty or malabsorption, inflammatory or most commonly watery. Chronic diarrhea is often seen in the following conditions:

Inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, which are diseases resulting in the inflammation of the digestive tract.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal disorder, which means there is some type of turmoil in bowel function. It is not a disease, but a syndrome, defined as a group of symptoms.

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes damage to the small intestines after consumption of gluten. Treatment is a gluten-free diet.

Symptoms of diarrhea

Chances are you already know the symptoms of diarrhea, but in case you need a refresher, here are the most common symptoms:

  • Unexplained urgency to have a bowel movement

  • Thin, loose, or watery stool

  • Bloating

  • Cramps

How do I treat diarrhea?

If you’re experiencing diarrhea, the first thing that you should do is drink plenty of fluids, especially those with sugar and salt, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. Chances are the loose or watery stools are causing you to lose more water through your bowel movements than usual, and your body may be getting dehydrated.

If your case is mild, you can go to the drug store and get an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal such as Imodium (loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate), according to the National Institutes of Health . You may want to take a hot bath or put a heating pad on your abdomen to relax those muscles and help with discomfort. It is recommended that you eat foods that are easy on the stomach during this time, such as bananas, soup, or crackers.

When to visit your doctor

In addition to the above symptoms, there are certain more severe symptoms that warrant a call to your doctor. If your diarrhea is more severe, your doctor will likely write you a prescription for medication to help slow your bowels down. Depending on your symptoms, the doctor may also prescribe an anti-nausea medication, a painkiller, an antibiotic and/or medication ointment.

More severe symptoms include:

  • Symptoms that last longer than two days and don’t appear to be getting better

  • Frequent watery stools (more than six in 24 hours)

  • Signs of dehydration, including sluggishness and fatigue, dry mouth, dizziness upon standing, dark-colored urine, or muscle cramps

  • Fever

  • Weight loss

  • Blood or mucus in the stool

  • Severe abdominal pain

The topic of diarrhea doesn’t make for a pleasant conversation, but it is important to stay aware of your symptoms in order to avoid more severe complications. Remember to stay hydrated, eat safe foods, and call your doctor if symptoms appear to be persisting.

Jackie Zimmerman
Meet Our Writer
Jackie Zimmerman

Jackie Zimmerman is a multiple sclerosis and ulcerative colitis patient and the founder of Girls With Guts. Since diagnosis, she has blogged her IBD journey at Blood, Poop, and Tears. Jackie has worked hard to become a strong voice in the patient advocacy community. In her free time (what free time?!) she spends time with her two rescue pups, her husband Adam and plays roller derby. She’s online @JackieZimm.