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General Information

DEFINITION--The passage of many loose, watery or unformed bowel movements. This is a symptom, not a disease.

BODY PARTS INVOLVED--Colon; small intestine.

SEX OR AGE MOST AFFECTED--Both sexes; simple diarrhea is common among all age groups.


  • Cramping abdominal pain.
  • Loose, watery or unformed bowel movements.
  • Lack of bowel control (sometimes).
  • Fever (sometimes).

CAUSES--There are many causes including infections (viral, parasitic or bacterial).


  • Emotional upsets or acute stress.
  • Food poisoning or food allergy.
  • Infections (viral, parasitic or bacterial) or other recent illness.
  • Regional enteritis.
  • Malabsorption syndromes.
  • Disease or tumor of the pancreas (malignant or benign).
  • Diverticulitis.
  • Foods, such as prunes or beans.
  • Use of drugs, such as laxatives, antacids, antibiotics, quinine or anticancer drugs.
  • Radiation treatments for cancer.
  • Excess alcohol consumption.
  • Crowded or unsanitary living conditions.
  • Immunosuppression due to illness or drugs.
  • Travel to foreign country.
  • Ingestion of water from streams, springs or untested wells.
  • Lactose or sorbitol intolerance.


  • If diarrhea is recurrent and a cause can be identified, treatment or avoidance of the cause should prevent recurrence.
  • Everyone is likely to have bouts of diarrhea occasionally from insignificant causes that disappear and leave no lasting effects. Most cases of acute diarrhea last a short time and a search for the cause may not be necessary.
  • Avoid undercooked or raw seafood, buffet or picnic foods left out several hours and food served by street vendors.
  • Wash hands frequently, especially after using the toilet.

What To Expect


  • Your own observation of symptoms.
  • Medical history and exam by a doctor.
  • Laboratory stool studies (for prolonged diarrhea).


  • Self-care. Diarrhea is a symptom. If possible, the underlying disorder should be treated.
  • Doctor's treatment (if symptoms persist longer than 2 to 3 days).

POSSIBLE COMPLICATIONS--Dehydration if diarrhea is prolonged, especially in infants.

PROBABLE OUTCOME--Spontaneous recovery in 24 to 48 hours.

How To Treat


  • If you think a prescription drug is causing the diarrhea, consult with the doctor before discontinuing it.
  • If cramps are present, place hot compresses, a hot-water bottle or an electric heating pad on the abdomen.
  • Maintain fluid intake. Severe diarrhea may require urgent fluid and electrolyte replacement to correct dehydration.

MEDICATION--For minor discomfort, you may use non-prescription drugs such as bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol).

ACTIVITY--Decrease activity until diarrhea stops.


  • Replace lost fluids and electrolytes with a commercial rehydration product (e.g., Gatorade). There are special products for infants (Pedialyte, Ricelyte, etc.). Follow package instructions.
  • After 12 hours with no diarrhea, try a diet of clear soup, salted crackers, dry toast or bread.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, milk and dairy products, spicy, fried and junk foods.
  • Resume a normal diet 2 or 3 days after the diarrhea stops. Avoid alcohol and highly seasoned foods for several more days.

Call Your Doctor If

  • Diarrhea lasts more than 48 hours, especially in a child.
  • Mucus, blood or worms appear in the stool.
  • Fever rises to 101F (38.3C) or higher.
  • Severe pain develops in the abdomen or rectum.
  • Dehydration develops. Signs include: dry mouth; wrinkled skin; excess thirst; little or no urination.
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