Diarrhea Definition

Watery or frequent bowel movements. Diarrhea can have serious health consequences for the very young, the very old, and those who have debilitating illnesses. It is important to increase fluid consumption when diarrhea is present as dehydration can occur very quickly.

Diarrhea in an infant under six months old requires immediate medical attention. For older children and adults, medical attention becomes necessary when diarrhea exists with:

  • Abdominal pain for longer than two hours
  • Fever above 101ºF for longer than 24 hours
  • Profuse vomiting
  • Reduced or lack of urination
  • Suspected ingestion of toxic or obstructive substance

Bloody diarrhea may signal a serious health condition and requires immediate medical evaluation.

What Causes Diarrhea

Numerous causes exist for diarrhea. Foods containing table sugar (sucrose), sugars that occur in milk (lactose), fruits (fructose), and sweeteners in juices and soft drinks (sorbitol and mannitol) can cause or worsen diarrhea because they draw additional fluid into the large intestine.

Viral, bacterial, and parasitic infections, often food-borne, are common causes of diarrhea. Diarrhea is also a common symptom with gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (ibs) and inflammatory bowel disease (ibd).

Extended periods (weeks to months) of loose or frequent bowel movements may suggest dysfunction of the small intestine or malabsorption disorders. Frequent, small bowel movements that are a change from usual bowel patterns may indicate conditions of the large intestine such as intestinal polyps or colorectal cancer.

Women may have mild diarrhea with their menstrual periods. Diarrhea may occur with changes in eating habits, such as when traveling.

Common Causes of Diarrhea
antibiotic therapyceliac disease
changes in eating habitscolorectal cancer
diverticular diseaseexcessive alcohol consumption
excessive caffeine consumptionfood-borne illnesses
foods and beveragesgallbladder disease
ileusinflammatory bowel disease (ibd)
ingested toxinsintestinal polyp
irritable bowel syndrome (ibs)malabsorption
viral, bacterial, and parasitic infectionmedication side effects

Treatment for Diarrhea

Bland foods such as cooked rice, oatmeal, soda crackers, graham crackers, and bananas can help calm the gastrointestinal tract and restore normal bowel function. Doctors often recommend an oral rehydration solution (ORS) such as Pedialyte or Rehydralyte when diarrhea persists beyond a few days in children, and for adults who show indications of dehydration or have extensive diarrhea.

Doctors may recommend antidiarrheal medications such as loperamide (imodium) that slow peristalsis (intestinal movement) to help control symptoms. Most diarrhea, though disruptive, represents minor and temporary gastrointestinal disturbance that fully resolves within one to three weeks.


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