Diarrhea: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis And Treatment

Diarrhea or watery stools is a common problem. Passing loose, watery, and frequent stools can result in the loss of fluids from your body. The underlying cause can range from simple to severe. In most cases, a simple problem affects people only for a short time. So, it does not last for more than a few days. But, if a person endures the problem for more than a few weeks, it means something serious. In such cases, people need to seek a doctor’s assistance to detect the underlying issue like irritable bowel disorder or something more serious like inflammatory bowel disease or persistent infection.

Types Of Diarrhea

Diarrhea Diarrhea means the affected person passes watery stools frequently due to the urge to have a bowel movement. Based on the severity and duration of the problem, you can classify the problem into two types:

Acute Diarrhea

It is the problem that lasts for just a few days and goes away without any specific treatment. So, patients who suffer from the problem only experience mild symptoms. It usually occurs due to food poisoning or due to infection triggered by a viral or bacterial agent. People who travel frequently to developing countries can develop a condition referred to as traveler’s diarrhea. It is the condition caused due to the parasite or bacterial exposure. It is the common condition occurring to many people.

Chronic Diarrhea

When watery stools last for at least four weeks or more, then the condition is more serious. It does not go away on its own. You need to undergo treatment for the underlying condition to alleviate the problem. In most cases, people suffering from intestinal disease or disorder can suffer from the issue.

Symptoms Of Diarrhea

Symptoms Of Diarrhea

How can you identify the problem? Here are some of the main symptoms indicating the issue in people:

  • Watery, loose stools
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Mucus in stool
  • Blood in the stool
  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Urgent need to go to the toilet for a bowel movement

See A Doctor For Diarrhea

While loose, watery stools can ease after some days, some people need to see the doctor to alleviate the problem. So, the following signs indicate a serious issue requiring immediate medical attention:

Symptoms In Adults

  • Watery stools persisting for more than a few days
  • See signs of dehydration
  • Suffer from rectal or abdominal pain
  • See black or bloody stools
  • Suffer from fever above 39 degrees C (102 F)

Signs In Children

When a child, especially an infant suffer from watery stools, it can escalate to severe complication within no time. So, the child suffers from dehydration and other complications. It is important to seek a doctor’s assistance if the condition does not improve within 24 hours or if the child shows the following signs:

  • Show signs of dehydration
  • Suffers from high fever (above 39 degrees C)
  • Has black or bloody stools

In such cases, get a doctor’s assistance as early as possible to avoid the condition from escalating.

Causes Of Diarrhea

What causes watery stools? Several reasons can lead to the condition. Let us see the causes of the frequent watery stools in detail:

Presence Of Virus

Viral attacks on your body can lead to watery stools. The common viral agents triggering the problem are:

  • Viral hepatitis
  • Norwalk virus
  • Cytomegalovirus
  • Rotavirus (a common cause of watery stools in children)

Bacteria And Parasites

When parasite or bacteria enters your body through contaminated water or food, then it results in watery stools. It usually occurs when a person travels to developing countries. It is the acute form of the disease, which is also known as traveler’s diarrhea. Serious infections occur due to clostridium difficile bacteria and it affects people who are hospitalized or undergo antibiotic therapy.

Taking Medications

Patients who take antibiotics to other problems can experience diarrhea. It is because antibiotics can disturb good as well as bad bacteria. So, it disturbs the natural balance of bacteria residing in the intestines. Some other medication like antacids containing magnesium and cancer drugs.

Lactose Intolerance

Some people have an intolerance to lactose, the natural sugar found in dairy products like milk. Such people find it difficult to digest lactose. So, it can lead to watery stools due to the inability to digest dairy products. Intolerance to lactose can increase with age. It is because of the dropping of enzyme levels that aids in digesting lactose after childhood.

Consuming Fructose

Fructose refers to the natural sugar found in honey and fruits. It is also added as a sweetener to beverages. Some people experience issues digesting natural sugar. It can lead to watery stools.

Using Artificial Sweeteners

You can find sorbitol or mannitol (artificial sweetener) in sugar-free products or in chewing gum. It leads to watery stools even in healthy people.


People who undergo gallbladder removal or abdominal surgery can suffer from watery stools as a side effect.

Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s Disease

It is the digestive disorder caused due to the problem in your colon and the small intestine. The problem can affect any part of your GI (gastrointestinal) tract. So, you are susceptible to problems from your mouth to anus. It affects certain parts of your GI tract while completely missing others. The problem can lead to severe watery stools.

Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative Colitis

It is the condition developing due to the presence of inflammation or sores (ulcers) in your digestive tract. The disease affects your colon (the inner lining of the large intestine) as well as the rectum. People suffering from it can experience mild to severe symptoms. You can see watery stools frequently due to the condition. Without medical intervention, you face a high risk of developing colon cancer.

Diarrhea Due To Celiac Disease

The watery stool is a common symptom of celiac disease. It is the severe autoimmune disease that develops in genetically predisposed patients. The problem arises in people due to the ingestion of gluten. So, eating gluten can cause inflammation that leads to the damage of the small intestine. The small intestine’s lining can cause medical complications leading to malabsorption.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

IBS refers to the different intestinal symptoms, which can occur together. The signs triggered can vary in duration and severity from one person to another. But, the signs like watery stools can last from three days a month for up to three months. In some cases, people suffering from IBS suffer from intestinal damage.

Microscopic Colitis Causing Diarrhea

It refers to two conditions lymphocytic colitis and collagenous colitis that are related to one another. The condition can lead to persistent diarrhea in people with advanced age. It usually causes diarrhea during the night.

Malabsorption And Maldigestion Diarrhea

Malabsorption is caused due to the impaired nutrient absorption by your body. The latter is caused due to an impaired digestive system. Malabsorption occurs due to lactose intolerance or celiac disease while maldigestion develops due to cholestasis.

Chronic Infections

A person who has a travel history to developing countries can suffer from chronic infections due to bacteria or viral attacks. Various parasites can lead to watery stools.

Endocrine Causes

Some people suffer from frequent watery stools due to certain hormonal issues. It is common among people who have developed carcinoid tumors and Addison disease.

Diarrhea Caused By Certain Cancers

Neoplastic diarrhea is developed by people who suffer from different types of gut cancers.

If you experience chronic watery stools, then see a doctor immediately. You need to address the serious problems that trigger watery stools. Without treatment, you can experience severe dehydration, which can lead to fatal problems.

Complications Due To Diarrhea

While watery stools seem like a small problem at first, it can escalate quickly if you fail to control it. Excess loss of fluids from your body due to watery stools can lead to dehydration. Dehydration is a serious complication that causes life-threatening complications. It is specifically a serious complication in young children, people with a weakened immune system, and older adults. People who suffer from dehydration need to seek the assistance of the doctor immediately. The signs of dehydration include:

Signs Of Dehydration In Adults

Dehydration due to loss of fluids can trigger serious complications in adults. The signs associated with the condition include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Excessive thirst
  • Dry skin
  • Little/no urination
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Weakness
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness

Signs Of Dehydration In Children

In infants and young children, watery stools can lead to fatal complications. Therefore, parents must contact a pediatrician immediately when they see the following signs:

  • The diaper is not wet for three or more hours
  • Dry mouth
  • Dry tongue
  • Fever (body temperature above 39 degrees C)
  • Crying without tears
  • Irritability
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Drowsiness
  • Sunken cheeks, eyes, or abdomen

Diagnosing Diarrhea

Watery stools itself is the first indication of diarrhea. But, you need to see a doctor when you feel the condition is not alleviating on its own. Your doctor can make the diagnosis and help you uncover the actual cause of the problem. It is a necessity when you suffer from watery stools due to underlying medical conditions or as a side effect of certain medications. To diagnose the problem, your doctor performs the following:

Physical Examination

Your review the medical history to check the diseases you suffer from, or the medications you take. Based on the thorough physical examination, your doctor can suggest other tests to detect the problem conclusively.

Blood Tests To Detect Diarrhea

A complete blood count test can uncover the presence of infection. Based on the results, your doctor can detect the exact cause of watery stools.

Stool Test

The doctor suggests a stool test to detect parasite or bacterium presence in your body. It will help understand the cause of watery stool.

Colonoscopy/Flexible Sigmoidoscopy

Colonoscopy/Flexible Sigmoidoscopy

The doctor suggests undergoing colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy to detect underlying medical issues triggering the problem. So, a thin, lighted tube is inserted in the patient’s rectum to see the colon. The device has a special tool to extract a small sample tissue of the colon. The sample is used for colon biopsy. With flexible sigmoidoscopy, your doctor can view the lower section of your colon. A colonoscopy offers a complete view of your colon.

Treatment For Diarrhea

In the case of moderate cases of diarrhea, it clears itself on its own without undergoing any treatment. You have to just wait for a few days to restore your health. With some lifestyle changes as well as home remedies, you can avoid complications caused due to watery bowel movements. In case the problem does not ease with the remedies, then you need to see a doctor immediately. The treatments depend on the underlying reason triggering watery stools. So, the options available to ease the condition and prevent any complications are:

Overcome Dehydration

When people suffer from watery stools, they tend to lose the water content in their bodies. It can lead to dehydration. Severe dehydration can affect your vital organs negatively. So, the primary action for managing watery stools is rehydration. Rehydration is replenishing your body with fluids by drinking it or providing it intravenously. Children who suffer from dehydration can expect severe complications. So, then you need to take the following steps:

At Home

If you have a simple case of watery stools, then you can rehydrate by consuming water. You can also take clear broth or soups to compensate for the fluid loss. Sucking on frozen water or ice pops also offers you relief. Some people take sports drinks like Gatorade to replenish the fluid loss from their bodies.

Take ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution)

Sometimes your doctor can suggest taking oral rehydration solution (ORS) salts to rehydrate. It contains salt as well as glucose. When you drink the solution, your small intestine absorbs it. So, it effectively replaces the water and electrolytes lost due to watery stools. It is the most cost-effective treatment option as the product cost only a little. The WHO (World Health Organization) believes ORS can effectively and safely treat the majority of the non-severe cases of watery stools. You have commercial ORS available that you buy from the drugstore with ease. In children, the doctor suggests giving Zinc supplementation along with the ORS to reduce the duration and severity of watery stools.

Intravenous Fluids

For severe cases of watery stools, patients require hospitalization. They are provided with intravenous fluids to rehydrate and prevent any complications.

Antidiarrheal Medication

You can also take over-the-counter medications as per the suggestion of the doctor to ease the duration and severity of watery stools. Imodium or Loperamide is available over-the-counter to avoid dehydration. It is easy to purchase the products from the drugstore or on an online platform like Amazon. Another antidiarrheal medication is bismuth subsalicylate (commercial known as Pepto-Bismol) that reduces watery stool in both adults and children. But, watery stool triggered due to bacterial infection can prolong due to taking antidiarrheal medication. It is because the medication reduces pathogen removal through your stools.

Take Antibiotics

If your doctor diagnoses bacterial infection behind your watery stools, then you need to take antibiotics. You can overcome the infection only by using antibiotics for the specified period as suggested by the doctor.

Change/Adjust Medications

In some cases, certain medications trigger watery stools. So, you need to consult a doctor to check if any medication you take for the underlying medical condition triggers the problem. Based on the assessment, your doctor can change the medication or lower/adjust the dosage.

Treating Underlying Conditions

Some people suffer from watery stools due to serious health conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. So, you need to get a doctor’s assistance to develop a strategy to control the condition. You may have to see a specialist like a gastroenterologist develop a treatment plan to alleviate the problem.

Nutritional Diet For Diarrhea

People suffering from diarrhea need to follow some tips linked to their diet. These tips help get nutrition and avoid extreme fluid loss.

Consume Fluids

You can avoid dehydration only by sipping fluids. But, just drinking water or other fluids may not offer effective results. Here are some pointers:

  • Sip on clear fluid without sugar to hydrate your body. You can consume fruit juices, tender coconut water or other beverages with no added sugar.
  • After you use the toilet, replace the lost fluid by drinking one cup of liquid.
  • Try to drink between your meals and not during meals.
  • You need to include high-potassium drinks or foods. So, consume diluted fruits juices, bananas or potatoes without skin.
  • Drinking fluids and foods containing high sodium content like salted crackers, sports drinks, soups, or broths.

Food To Thicken Stool

The watery stool can lead to fluid loss. So, you can include foods in your diet to thicken the stool. Several nutritionists believe consuming certain foods can help with it. So, eat foods high in soluble fiber to thicken stool. Include rice, oatmeal, and banana to ease watery stools.

Avoid Certain Foods

Some foods can worsen watery stools. So, you need to avoid sugary, creamy, and fried foods that can worsen fluid loss from your body. So, try to avoid the following:

  • Caffeinated medications and drinks
  • Sugar-free gums or mints
  • Fruits like prunes or sweet cherries
  • Food or beverages containing a high amount of fructose like nuts, dates, honey, fruit juices, soft drinks, grapes, and prunes.
  • Dairy products containing lactose
  • Food containing magnesium
  • Fat substitutes like Olean or olestra

Take Probiotics

Some evidence suggests the positive role of taking probiotics when a person suffers from watery stools. It is most beneficial to people suffering from traveler’s diarrhea in children. Taking probiotics can reduce the duration of the illness by at least a day. If you suffer from watery stools due to taking antibiotics, then taking probiotics can reduce the problem to an extent. But, the evidence is mixed when people suffer from watery stools due to taking Clostridium difficile. People can get probiotics easily from the drugstore or on online platforms like Amazon. It is available in different forms like liquids, powders, capsules or tablets.

Preventing Diarrhea

Some types of problem are caused due to certain medical condition that is avoidable. But, you can prevent watery stools caused due to infections. So, it is possible to prevent viral or bacterial diarrhea by taking certain precautions. Here are some of the steps to avoid the condition.

Avoid Coming In Contact With Infectious Agents

Not coming in contact with infectious agents can lead to viral or bacterial infection, leading to watery stools. So, you need to ensure adequate handwashing. It keeps your hands clear of infectious agents when you can touch surfaces.

Wash Hand Frequently

You have to wash your hands properly before and after you prepare food, after going to the toilet, or after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. It is also essential to wash your hands after handling uncooked meat or after changing your baby’s diapers.

Proper Hand Washing Technique

Follow proper hand washing techniques to ensure the pathogens are flush off from your hand surface. The proper technique involves lathering with soap for at least twenty seconds. You need to apply soap on your hands and rub thoroughly for twenty seconds before washing it off.

Use Hand Sanitizer

Using a hand sanitizer is essential when you cannot wash your hands with soap and water. Try to choose a sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content. While applying the sanitizer try to cover the front as well as the back of both the hands. Using sanitizer is just like applying hand lotion.

Get Vaccination

In some countries, rotavirus vaccination is provided for infants. So, it prevents viral diarrhea that causes severe complications in children. You can your child’s pediatrician about getting a vaccination.

Prevent Diarrhea In Travelers

Travelers who visit countries with inadequate sanitation or high chances of consuming contaminated food are at risk of watery stools. So, they need to take the necessary precaution to avoid watery the problem. To avoid the risk, it is essential to follow the pointers:

Check What You Eat

You have to watch what you eat when you travel to an outbreak prone location. So, avoid raw vegetables and fruits unless it has skin to peel. Avoid raw or undercooked food like meat or dairy foods as it increases the chance of bacterial infection.

Watch Your Drink

Only drink bottled water, wine, beer, or soda served to you in its original container. Stay away from tap water or ice cube with unknown origins. For brushing teeth, you need to use bottled water. Use ice cubes or water you have boiled. Since water can enter your mouth while taking a shower, keep it closed. Also, follow the suggestions:

  • Drink only hot beverages made with boiled water when you are thirsty (like tea and coffee).
  • Stay away from alcohol as it can aggravate the existing condition and lead to severe dehydration.

Consult A Doctor

Before you make a trip to a developing country for an extended period, it is better to consult a doctor to learn more about antibiotics. So, before you make the trip get the necessary tips and suggestions. It is specifically true for people with a weakened immune system.

Learn More About Travel Warning

Check the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) or the WHO website to learn more about the disease warnings posted for different countries. It is beneficial for people who are planning a trip to developing countries. These warnings will help you take the necessary precautions to reduce your risk.


In most cases, acute or non-serious cases of watery stools clear up quickly with just home remedies. But, you need to see a doctor check the underlying cause of the problem. But, chronic cases triggered due to underlying medical causes like IBD can clear with medical intervention. With early detection and treatment, you can alleviate chronic diarrhea. Remember to rehydrate as loss of fluid leads to dehydration, which leads to severe complications. So, contact your doctor and make lifestyle changes to deal with the problem effectively.

View Article Sources
  • https://www.healthline.com/health/diarrhea
  • https://medlineplus.gov/diarrhea.html
  • https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diarrhea/symptoms-causes/syc-20352241

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