Diarrhea is the medical term for watery or loose stools that occur three or more times a day. Other symptoms can include stomach cramps and loss of appetite.
This article describes the causes of watery diarrhea and the treatment options available.
Severe or persistent diarrhea can lead to complications, such as dehydration.
There are many potential causes of diarrhea. We describe some common causes below.
Gastrointestinal infections are the most common
- Viruses: People can contract viruses by inhaling infected droplets from another person’s cough or sneeze. It is also possible to catch viruses by touching surfaces that have come in contact with the virus and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth. Some viruses that can cause gastrointestinal infections include:
- Bacteria: Spoiled or unwashed food or contaminated drinking water can contain bacteria that can cause gastroenteritis. Some examples include:
- Parasites: Parasites Giardia and Cryptosporidium can cause gastrointestinal infections. People can get parasites by accidentally ingesting human or animal feces or by consuming contaminated food or water.
Difficulty digesting certain sugars and sweeteners
Some people have difficulty digesting certain sugars or artificial sweeteners. Consuming these substances could trigger an attack of watery diarrhea.
The sugars fructose and lactose are common causes of gastrointestinal upset. Fructose is found in fruits and honey, while lactose is found in dairy products.
Artificial sweeteners can also trigger diarrhea in some people. Sorbitol, mannitol, and other artificial sweeteners are common ingredients in chewing gum and sugar-free products.
Drug-induced diarrhea is the medical term for loose, watery stools that occurs as a side effect of a particular drug.
Some drugs that can cause diarrhea are prescription only, while others are available over the counter (OTC). Some examples include:
Chronic watery diarrhea is a symptom of several disorders that affect the digestive tract. Examples include:
Sometimes stomach or gallbladder surgery can cause postoperative diarrhea. Diarrhea can be acute or chronic.
People who experience diarrhea after abdominal surgery should tell their doctor.
Many cases of watery diarrhea go away a few days after home treatment. The main goals of home treatment are to reduce discomfort and prevent dehydration.
The following home remedies can help relieve diarrhea:
- Get plenty of rest: Rest helps the body fight off any infections that may be present.
- Stay hydrated: To avoid dehydration, drink plenty of water and other clear fluids. Sports drinks and electrolyte drinks are good options to replace lost electrolytes. Alternatively, people can try Pedialyte and other over-the-counter oral rehydration solutions.
- Eat foods that are easy to digest: People should stick to foods that are easy to digest, like bananas, boiled rice, and toast.
- Eat smaller meals: The body can have difficulty digesting large meals. Try to eat several small meals throughout the day.
- Avoiding problematic foods and drinks: Certain foods can make diarrhea worse. Try to avoid the following foods until the symptoms are resolved:
- fried or fatty foods
- spicy food
- foods that trigger allergies or intolerances, such as those containing fructose, lactose, or artificial sweeteners
If home remedies do not provide relief from diarrhea within a few days, a person may need medical treatment. The treatment a person receives will depend on the underlying cause of their diarrhea.
Some potential treatment options for watery diarrhea include:
- Antibiotics: In case of bacterial or parasitic infection, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics to clear the infection. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections.
- Anti-diarrheal drugs: In some cases, a doctor may recommend anti-diarrheal medication. However, these medicines may not be suitable for people who have an infection because they can make the infection persist.
- Medication adjustment: With drug-induced diarrhea, a doctor may recommend changing a person’s medication. The doctor may suggest reducing the dose of a particular medicine or switching to another medicine altogether.
- Treatment of digestive disorders: People who have an underlying digestive disorder may need one or more of the following treatments:
- dietary changes
- lifestyle changes
- Fluid replacement: People who develop dehydration from severe or chronic diarrhea may need intravenous (IV) fluids.
Watery diarrhea often passes without causing complications. However, when complications do arise, they can be serious.
We describe some possible complications of diarrhea below.
Diarrhea can cause the body to lose fluids faster than it can absorb them.
Untreated dehydration can be life threatening. It is especially dangerous for young children and older adults.
Some signs and symptoms of dehydration to watch out for include:
In babies and toddlers, dehydration can also cause a lack of tears when crying. Older adults and children are at particular risk of dehydration, so identifying symptoms of dehydration early is essential.
Severe or persistent episodes of diarrhea can trigger intestinal malabsorption. This is where the intestines are unable to absorb all of the nutrients the body needs to function properly.
Intestinal malabsorption is a particular risk in cases of parasitic infection.
Some possible signs and symptoms of intestinal malabsorption include:
- appetite changes
- Stomach pain
- other symptoms of nutrient deficiencies
Many cases of diarrhea can be prevented if people take the right precautions. We describe some examples below.
Wash one’s hands
Washing your hands thoroughly and regularly reduces the risk of infections that can cause diarrhea. Hand washing is especially important in the following situations:
- before preparing or eating food
- after using the toilet
- following contact with a sick person
Practice good food hygiene
Food poisoning resulting from bacterial infection is a common cause of watery diarrhea. To reduce the risk of food poisoning, a person should:
- keep food at the right temperature
- wash your hands thoroughly before preparing or eating food
- separate fresh and raw meats and use separate utensils and cutting boards when preparing food
- cook meat and seafood well
Take precautions while traveling
The risk of food poisoning is higher when traveling to countries with poor sanitation facilities. As such, people should take the following precautions when traveling to such destinations:
- Eat well-cooked foods, especially meat, seafood, and dairy products.
- Avoid raw fruits and vegetables, unless it is possible to peel the produce.
- Drink only bottled water and other beverages in their original bottles.
- Do not drink tap water or ice, and do not use tap water to brush your teeth. However, boiled tap water is generally drinkable.
- Check travel warnings for outbreaks in the destination country.
A person can be vaccinated against rotavirus and cholera.
The CDC currently recommends the cholera vaccine only for adults between the ages of 18 and 64 who are traveling to an area with an active cholera epidemic. The vaccine reduces the likelihood of severe diarrhea by
Adults should see a doctor if their diarrhea persists beyond a few days. Parents or caregivers should take babies and young children to see a doctor if their diarrhea persists for 24 hours or more.
People should see a doctor promptly if any of the following accompanies diarrhea:
- a fever
- black, tarry, or bloody stools
- severe pain in the stomach or rectum
Most people with watery diarrhea recover within a few days of receiving appropriate home care or medical treatment. In most cases of diarrhea in adults goes away in 2 to 4 days, while children usually get better in 5 to 7 days.
People should seek medical treatment for diarrhea that is severe or persistent or is accompanied by other symptoms. Prompt treatment reduces the risk of complications, such as dehydration and intestinal malabsorption.
Some people can develop chronic diarrhea that lasts longer than