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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:

Other symptoms that may occur along with diarrhea

Diarrhea may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

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

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Dizziness

  • Fainting, change in level of consciousness, or lethargy

  • 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)

  • Weakness

  • 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:

Other causes of diarrhea

Diarrhea can also be caused by problems in body systems other than the digestive tract including:

Life-threatening conditions associated with diarrhea

In some cases, diarrhea may accompany a serious or life-threatening condition including:

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:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Nov 27
  1. What I need to know about diarrhea. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/diarrhea_ez/
  2. Diarrhea. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.https://medlineplus.gov/diarrhea.html

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