Loose Stool

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What is loose stool?

Loose stool is another name for diarrhea, which is a digestive condition. When you have loose stool, meaning the stool—or bowel movement—isn’t well formed, it is usually also watery. It can be a little watery or very watery. Loose stool can also come in a variety of colors, including yellow, green and brown.

A general definition for diarrhea is having loose stools three or more times a day. Mild diarrhea happens when you have just a few episodes in a day. However, diarrhea can be severe, occurring more than 10 times a day.

Diarrhea can also be acute, persistent or chronic. It’s acute when loose stools last for a few days, up to two weeks. A viral infection commonly causes acute diarrhea. Persistent diarrhea lasts for 2 to 4 weeks. Chronic diarrhea lasts for four weeks or longer and may be continual or come and go. Chronic diarrhea is usually a sign of a more serious underlying condition.

Although diarrhea is one of the most common medical issues in the United States, it usually isn’t an urgent problem. But there are times when you need to see a doctor because of loose stools. Seek prompt medical care if diarrhea isn’t improving after two days for an adult or 24 hours for a child. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have severe diarrhea and any of these potentially serious symptoms:

  • Black, tarry stools or stools with blood or pus
  • Fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Severe abdominal or rectal pain
  • Signs of dehydration, such as excessive thirst, decreased urination, dry skin and mouth, and weakness. In babies and children, signs can include no tears when crying, no wet diaper in three hours, sunken eyes or cheeks, and drowsiness.

What other symptoms might occur with loose stool?

The other symptoms that could occur with loose stools depend on the underlying cause. However, it’s common to have other digestive symptoms along with loose stools.

Digestive-related symptoms that may occur along with loose stool

Loose stool may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive tract including:

  • Abdominal bloating, pain and cramping
  • Bloody or greasy, foul-smelling stools
  • Gas
  • Loss of bowel control (fecal incontinence)
  • Nausea and vomiting or changes in appetite
  • Urgent or frequent need to have a bowel movement

Other symptoms that may occur along with loose stool

Other symptoms can occur along with loose stool, especially when diarrhea is severe. Other symptoms may include:

  • Dehydration
  • Weight loss

Contact your healthcare provider if you experience these symptoms along with diarrhea.

Symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening or serious condition

Having loose stools causes you to lose fluids faster than normal. This increases the risk of dehydration, which is the biggest danger with diarrhea. Dehydration can quickly become serious or even life-threatening. This is especially true for babies, young children, older people, and those with weakened immune systems. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms of dehydration including:

  • Dark-colored urine
  • Skin that doesn’t flatten out after pinching, but stays raised instead
  • Urinating less than normal

It isn’t always obvious when infants and toddlers are becoming dehydrated. And they can’t always tell you what they are experiencing. Signs of dehydration to look for in babies and young children include:

  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • No tears with crying
  • No wet diapers for three hours
  • Sunken eyes, cheeks, or soft spots

What causes loose stool?

Normally, the large intestine absorbs water from the contents it receives from the small intestine. In the process, it forms solid stools. Diarrhea can occur when intestinal contents pass too quickly through the large intestine. It can also occur when changes in the intestines prevent it from absorbing water or fats properly. Several diseases, disorders and conditions can cause this to happen. The causes of loose stool vary depending on whether diarrhea is acute, persistent or chronic.

Causes of acute and persistent loose stool

The most common cause of acute diarrhea is a viral infection—or gastroenteritis. Rotavirus is the most common cause in children, while norovirus is more common in adults. In most cases, these viral infections last a few days and clear up on their own. Other possible causes of acute or persistent diarrhea include:

  • Bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Salmonella, and Shigella
  • Medications, including antibiotics, cancer chemotherapy, laxatives, and antacids containing magnesium
  • Parasitic infections, such as Cryptosporidium enteritis, Entamoeba histolytica, and Giardia lamblia

Causes of chronic loose stool

Having chronic diarrhea usually means something other than an infection is the problem. Causes of chronic diarrhea range from simple to serious and include:

  • Abdominal surgery, including stomach, gallbladder and intestinal surgeries
  • Long-term medications, such as H2 blockers, PPIs (proton pump inhibitors), Alzheimer’s drugs, and diabetes drugs

How are loose stools treated?

Sometimes, loose stool lasts a short while and no treatment is necessary. In other cases, identifying and treating the underlying cause often improves stool consistency, or at least reduces its frequency.

Possible treatment approaches include:

  • Changing or decreasing the dose of medications thought to cause your loose stools as a side effect
  • Over-the-counter antidiarrheal medicines loperamide (Imodium) and bismuth salicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate). There are also prescription antidiarrheals, such as diphenoxylate and atropine (Lomotil).
  • Prescription medicine for inflammatory bowel disease
  • Dietary modifications until treatment brings improvement
  • Consumption of probiotic food items to restore a healthy balance of ‘good’ digestive bacteria

What are the potential complications of loose stool?

In most cases, loose stools are not harmful, especially when it lasts for just a day or two. However, diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which can be life-threatening. It’s especially dangerous for infants, young children, senior adults, and people with compromised immune systems.

To avoid dehydration, drink plenty of fluids to replace those lost through loose stools. Include beverages that also replace electrolytes, such as diluted sports drinks or salty broths. Oral rehydration solutions are also a good option, especially for children. Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol, which can be dehydrating. If you can eat, choose bland foods, such as plain rice, pasta, crackers or toast. Avoid greasy, fatty, spicy or high-fiber foods that can make diarrhea worse.

Because dehydration can become life-threatening, seek medical care if signs or symptoms develop.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 1
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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