All the Reasons You Might Have Diarrhea and When to Worry

Patient Expert
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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. One of the best articles I read, said that “Diarrhea is both a symptom and a sign,” which explains why it is often so hard to find a root cause.

It's first important to note that there are two types of diarrhea - acute and chronic. Acute diarrhea is defined with symptoms that last one week or less. Chronic diarrhea has symptoms that last 3 weeks or more.

Acute diarrhea can be caused by:

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.

Medication

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

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 (IBD)

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 (IBS)

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.

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 go drink a glass of water. Chances are because of loose or watery stools you’re losing 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 Pepto-Bismol or Immodium. You may want to go home, 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 avoid milk and other dairy products for about 48 hours after the onset of symptoms.

When to visit your doctor

In addition to the above symptoms, there are more severe side effects that you should call your doctor about if you’re experiencing them. 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 3 days
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Blood or mucus in the stool
  • Severe abdomen pain
  • Frequent watery stools which can result in dehydration

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 to call your doctor if symptoms appear to be persisting.

Sources:

Carroccio, A., Iacono, G., Cottone, M., Di Prima, L., Cartabellotta, F., Cavataio, F., ... & Notarbartolo, A. (2003). Diagnostic accuracy of fecal calprotectin assay in distinguishing organic causes of chronic diarrhea from irritable bowel syndrome: a prospective study in adults and children. Clinical chemistry, 49(6), 861-867.

Blanca Ochoa, MD and Christina M. Surawicz, MD, MACG, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA – Published October 2002. Updated April 2007. Updated December 2012.