Watery Diarrhea: Causes, When to Worry, What to Do

Medically Reviewed By Cynthia Taylor Chavoustie, MPAS, PA-C

Watery diarrhea is when you pass loose, watery stool multiple times a day. It can result from various factors, including viral and bacterial activity. Most cases of watery diarrhea improve without treatment. Others may require at-home or medical treatment.

To reduce your risk of watery diarrhea, wash your hands frequently and observe proper food hygiene.

Learn more about watery diarrhea, its causes, and treatment options in this article.

What can cause watery diarrhea?

there is a toilet by a river
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Watery diarrhea is a common condition in which a person passes loose, watery stool three or more times a day.

It commonly results from infectious diseases. However, it can have noninfectious causes as well.

Here is a breakdown of the various possible causes:

Viral activity 

Many types of viruses can cause Trusted Source World Health Organization Highly respected international organization Go to source watery diarrhea. They include enteric adenovirus, rotavirus, and SARS-CoV-2.

You can contract these viruses by inhaling droplets from a person with an infection or by touching a surface with germs from the infection, then touching something that comes in contact with your mouth.

There is no specific treatment for these viruses, but they usually go away without a person needing medication.

Bacterial and parasitic activity 

Bacteria, such as E. coli, and parasites, such as cryptosporidium, can also cause Trusted Source World Health Organization Highly respected international organization Go to source watery diarrhea. 

Exposure may happen through contaminated food or water. 

Most people with bacterial watery diarrhea do not require medical treatment. The condition is quite likely to heal itself within a few days.

However, it is important to drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.

Fructose and lactose intolerance 

Some people also get watery diarrhea after consuming foods containing fructose or lactose.

Fructose is present in fruits, honey, and sweeteners. Lactose is present in dairy products.

If you have watery diarrhea and suspect fructose or lactose intolerance, try to abstain from dairy products for 2–7 days after symptoms go away. Also, try to avoid eating too many raw vegetables or fruits with skin on them.

Medications 

Sometimes, watery diarrhea occurs as a side effect of certain medications. These include Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source :

  • antibiotics
  • antidepressants
  • chemotherapy
  • proton pump inhibitors
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

Watery diarrhea caused by medication is quite likely to improve when you discontinue the use of the causative medication.

Learn more about medications that can cause diarrhea here.

Diseases

A range of diseases can also cause watery diarrhea. They include:

If you have any of these conditions, continue to follow your doctor’s treatment plan. In addition, schedule routine meetings with your doctor when possible.

What other symptoms can accompany watery diarrhea?

In some people, watery diarrhea happens alone. In others, other symptoms may also be present.

These can include:

Complications

Watery diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which can cause complications, such as organ failure.

Dehydration is especially dangerous in children, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.

When to contact a doctor

Watery diarrhea can clear up on its own, but contact a doctor if you or a child experience certain symptoms or a certain duration.

Adults

If watery diarrhea does not improve after 2 days, a serious underlying condition may be present.

Be sure to get prompt treatment if watery diarrhea persists or triggers other serious symptoms, such as:

  • severe dehydration, including a dry mouth or skin
  • blood in the stool 
  • fever above 102°F (39°C)
  • severe abdominal or rectal pain

Children

It is important that caregivers schedule an appointment with a doctor for their infants or young children if there is:

  • diarrhea that lasts longer than 24 hours
  • fever above 102°F (39°C)
  • blood in the stool
  • dehydration

Learn more about when to take children to the doctor for diarrhea here.

What are the at-home treatment methods for watery diarrhea?

Many cases of watery diarrhea respond to home remedies. 

The right home remedies can replenish lost body fluids and curtail symptoms.

They include drinking:

  • plenty of water regularly
  • mixtures of lemon water and a pinch of salt 
  • beverages that contain electrolytes 

Note that as you recover, it is important to avoid drinking beverages with caffeine or alcohol.

What are the medical treatment options for watery diarrhea?

Medical treatment for watery diarrhea focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause. 

For example, if bacteria are the cause, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If parasites are the cause, a doctor may give you an antiparasite drug.

In cases when watery diarrhea causes severe dehydration, a doctor may also administer IV fluids.

How can I prevent watery diarrhea?

You can reduce your risk of watery diarrhea by:

  • washing hands regularly with soap under running water
  • using hand sanitizer 
  • receiving vaccinations
  • drinking clean, potable water
  • heating meals and covering them properly before consumption 
  • avoiding foods that are undercooked

Summary

Watery diarrhea is a common condition in which a person passes loose, watery stool three or more times a day.

It can result from a wide variety of factors, including viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, and bacteria, such as E. coli. Other possible causes include fructose and lactose intolerance, medications, such as antidepressants, and diseases, such as Crohn’s disease.

The majority of episodes of watery diarrhea resolve on their own. Others may require medical or at-home care.

If you have watery diarrhea, be sure to stay hydrated by drinking enough water or beverages that contain electrolytes. 

Get medical treatment if symptoms persist.

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Medical Reviewer: Cynthia Taylor Chavoustie, MPAS, PA-C
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 27
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