What is diarrhea?
Diarrhea is the passage of loose, watery stools and/or having bowel movements more frequently than usual. Diarrhea is a common digestive symptom of a wide variety of mild to serious diseases, disorders and conditions.
Diarrhea occurs in all age groups and populations. Depending on the cause, diarrhea can be short term (acute) and disappear relatively quickly, such as when it occurs with viral gastroenteritis. Diarrhea can also be continuous or recurring over a longer period of time (chronic), such as when it occurs with inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Diarrhea can range in severity from mild and self limiting to serious and life threatening.
Diarrhea that is associated with bloody stool, rectal bleeding, vomiting blood, dizziness, fainting, or severe pain can be a symptom of a serious, potentially life-threatening condition. Call 911 if you, or someone you are with, are exhibiting any of these symptoms. If your diarrhea persists for more than five days or otherwise causes you concern, contact a medical professional to discuss your symptoms.
What other symptoms might occur with diarrhea?
Diarrhea may be accompanied by other symptoms, depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms frequently affect the digestive tract but may also affect other body systems.
Digestive symptoms that may occur along with diarrhea
Diarrhea may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive tract including:
Abdominal cramping or pain
Abdominal swelling, bloating or distention
Mucus or undigested food in feces
Nausea and vomiting
Rectal pain or burning
Urgent need to pass stool
Other symptoms that may occur along with diarrhea
Diarrhea may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:
Change in level of consciousness
Fever and chills
Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
Shortness of breath or rapid breathing (tachypnea)
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, diarrhea may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care or call 911 if you, or someone you are with, are exhibiting any of these symptoms:
Bloody or black stools
Confusion and disorientation
High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
Rapid pulse or rapid breathing
Rectal bleeding (large amount, not just a few drops)
Rigid, board-like abdomen
Severe abdominal pain
Vomiting blood or black material (resembling coffee grounds)
Yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)
What causes diarrhea?
Diarrhea occurs when fluid you take in by mouth, or fluid produced in your gastrointestinal tract, is not properly absorbed. Normally, the intestines absorb excessive water from food during the digestive process. When food moves too fast, the intestines cannot absorb water, resulting in loose stools. Diarrhea can also occur when excessive water moves into the bowel from the body.
Conditions that can cause diarrhea include infection, malignancy, inflammation, abdominal trauma, obstruction, and the use of certain medications, such as antibiotics, stool softeners, and laxatives.
Diarrhea can result from a wide variety of gastrointestinal or digestive conditions. The most common cause of diarrhea is a viral infection of the intestines, called viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu or intestinal flu). Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) and irritable bowel syndrome are other common causes of diarrhea.
Gastrointestinal causes of diarrhea
Diarrhea may arise from problems in the digestive tract including:
Bacterial or parasitic infection of the gastrointestinal tract
Digestive tract surgery
Food intolerances or allergies (lactose, fructose or gluten intolerance)
Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis)
Irritable bowel syndrome
Laxative use or abuse
Tumors of the small or large intestine (benign or malignant)
Viral gastroenteritis (stomach or intestinal flu)
Other causes of diarrhea
Diarrhea can also be caused by problems in body systems other than the digestive tract including:
Medication side effects (often antibiotics)
Nutritional deficiency (zinc)
Stress or anxiety
Life-threatening conditions associated with diarrhea
In some cases, diarrhea may accompany a serious or life-threatening condition including:
Perforated peptic ulcer
Bleeding esophageal varices
Severe abdominal trauma
What are the potential complications of diarrhea?
In some cases, diarrhea can lead to serious complications, especially if the diarrhea is severe, continues for a long time, or the underlying disease or condition is untreated or poorly managed. Complications include: