Diarrhea: What Causes It, How Long It Lasts & How to Stop It

Diarrhea is characterized by loose or watery stools that occur at least three times within 24 hours. Diarrhea can cause nausea, stomach pain & fatigue.

Diarrhea symptoms

Nobody likes the runs, the trots, diarrhea whatever you call it, it sucks. First, none of the terms sound too alluring; second, having diarrhea doesn't feel so good. Plus, it can greatly impact your dating and workaday life, making being near a bathroom a constant necessity in case you must go not just now, but RIGHT NOW!

How common is diarrhea?

Of course, diarrhea is a common condition, experienced by most people a few times per year. Most of the time, diarrhea is due to a viral stomach infection (stomach flu) or from eating certain foods, like Kung Pao Chicken with extra chili peppers.

Typical duration of diarrhea symptoms

Unless there is an infection present, diarrhea should not last more than two days. If diarrhea persists longer than this, especially if it lasts more than a week, an infection could be present, or a gut condition such as inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn's, or a less serious disorder called IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).

What diarrhea may indicate

Diarrhea not caused by eating spicy foods or trying a totally vegan diet for the first time is instead due to a virus or has food poisoning. Both rotaviruses and noroviruses can cause conditions like stomach flu, an easily transmitted infection which causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Food poisoning also causes diarrhea because of a bacterial infection caused by ingesting contaminated food or water. Parasitic infections can cause diarrhea as well. However, these types of infections are highly uncommon in industrialized countries, but may be contracted by those who travel to still-developing areas of the world.

Common characteristics of diarrhea

Diarrhea is typically characterized by loose or watery stools that occur at least three times within a 24-hour period [1]. Depending on the cause of the diarrhea, there may be other symptoms as well.

Common accompanying symptoms of diarrhea

Diarrhea may or may not be accompanied by:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fever and chills
  • Stomach pain
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss

Fortunately, almost all cases of diarrhea will stop on their own, even without treatment, within two to three days.

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9 diarrhea causes

Let's take a detailed look at the top five causes of diarrhea.

Infection and illness

Various infections and illnesses can result in diarrhea.

  • Viral infection: Norovirus causes symptoms like nausea, vomiting, stomach cramping, and diarrhea. Most of the time, you can quite easily figure out who gave you the virus. They will be the guy or gal who missed school or work a few days before. Norovirus is highly contagious and young children often bring it home from school.
  • Food-borne illness: The diarrhea symptoms caused by food poisoning are acute meaning they have an onset and quick end, typically beginning 20 minutes to several days after ingesting contaminated food. Depending on the contaminating bacteria, food poisoning may or may not cause nausea, vomiting, flu-like symptoms, fever, chills, and stomach pain. Though most cases of bacterial diarrhea will resolve on their own, some can cause life-threatening complications, such as hemolytic uremic syndrome.


Medications of all kinds can cause diarrhea, especially laxatives and sometimes other medications, such as antibiotics, antacids, some chemotherapy drugs, and metformin (used to treat diabetes).

Viral (norovirus) infection

If you ever heard of an entire cruise ship of people coming down with the same “stomach bug,” chances are that was norovirus. Fortunately, norovirus usually goes away on its own after a few days, but is pretty unpleasant and can spread extremely easily. The ...

Viral (rotavirus) infection

Rotavirus infection is a contagious gastrointestinal virus that most often affects babies, toddlers, and young children. It causes severe watery diarrhea, sometimes with vomiting and fever.

Adults may also be infected, though usually with milder symptoms.

Rotavirus spreads very quickly when any trace of stool from an infected child contaminates food or drink, or gets onto any surface. If another child consumes the food or drink, or touches the surface and then their mouth, the child will become infected.

Rotavirus in adults does not usually need a trip to the ER unless the degree of dehydration is severe but dehydration can set in quickly in children and is a medical emergency. A child can die if not treated immediately. Take the child to an emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Treatment consists of drinking fluids or IV fluids in severe cases and supportive care, usually in a hospital. Antibiotics will not help rotavirus because they only work against bacteria.

The best way prevention is frequent and thorough handwashing, as well as washing toys and surfaces when possible. There is now a vaccine that will either prevent rotavirus infection or greatly lessen the symptoms if the child still gets the virus.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: diarrhea, vomiting or nausea, nausea, fatigue, abdominal pain (stomach ache), headache

Symptoms that always occur with viral (rotavirus) infection: diarrhea, vomiting or nausea

Symptoms that never occur with viral (rotavirus) infection: constipation, tarry stool

Urgency: Self-treatment

Salmonella infection

Salmonella infection is also called gastroenteritis, food poisoning, or "stomach flu," although it is not related to influenza.

The Salmonella bacteria species are normal inhabitants of the digestive tracts of humans, animals, reptiles, and birds. The infection spreads through fecal-oral contamination and through raw or undercooked food, especially eggs, milk, meat, or seafood as well as unwashed fruits and vegetables.

Most susceptible are children. Travel in any region with poor sanitation is also a risk. Taking antibiotics or antacids reduces resistance to the bacteria, as does inflammatory bowel disease or a weakened immune system.

Symptoms include headache; fever and chills; stomach cramps; nausea and vomiting; and diarrhea, sometimes with blood.

If the symptoms persist or the diarrhea is severe, a medical provider should be seen. Dehydration can set in quickly, especially in children, and can be life threatening. In some cases the bacteria will spread throughout the body and cause further complications.

Diagnosis is made through stool samples and blood tests.

Treatment involves replacing fluids, sometimes intravenously while hospitalized, along with rest and supportive care.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: abdominal pain (stomach ache), diarrhea, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), fever, being severely ill

Symptoms that always occur with salmonella infection: diarrhea

Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit

Shigella infection

Shigella infection, or shigellosis, is an intestinal infection caused by a strain of Shigella bacteria.

Shigellosis is highly contagious through fecal matter. Anyone coming into contact with any trace of feces in food, drink, or surfaces can get the disease. Swimming in contaminated water, even in a chlorinated pool or hot tub, is another source of infection.

Most susceptible are young children; travelers to less developed regions; and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Symptoms include fever; abdominal pain and cramps; and severe diarrhea, which may contain blood.

If not treated, there is the risk of dehydration due to the diarrhea and fever. Young children are especially susceptible.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and testing of a stool sample.

Treatment involves rest and fluids. Most cases clear up within a week. Sometimes antibiotics are used in more severe cases, though antibiotics are not effective against some forms of Shigella bacteria.

The best prevention is frequent and thorough handwashing, and good hygiene when preparing food.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: diarrhea, general abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, watery diarrhea, fatigue

Symptoms that always occur with shigella infection: diarrhea

Urgency: Self-treatment

Food poisoning

Food poisoning, also called foodborne illness or "stomach flu," is an acute infection of the digestive tract from food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or other toxins. It actually has no relation to influenza.

Any food can become contaminated if not prepared under clean conditions, cooked thoroughly, or stored at cold temperatures. Meat, fish, dairy products, and fresh fruits and vegetables are some of the most easily contaminated foods.

Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, and sometimes fever and chills.

Most people recover on their own with supportive care, meaning rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers.

However, dehydration can result if the vomiting and/or diarrhea are not controlled and IV fluids may be needed.

If there is also blurred vision, dizziness, or paralysis, the nervous system may be affected due to botulism. This is a medical emergency. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Proper food preparation and storage, along with frequent and thorough handwashing, is the best prevention.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: nausea, abdominal pain (stomach ache), headache, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), dizziness

Symptoms that never occur with food poisoning: severe fever, being severely ill, bloody diarrhea

Urgency: Self-treatment

E. coli infection

E. coli are a large and diverse group of bacteria that can often be found in the intestines of healthy humans and animals. E. coli comes in a variety of strains. Although most strains are harmless, a few types can make people sick with diarrhea, as well as UTIs and respiratory illnesse...

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is also called gluten-sensitive enteropathy, coeliac, or sprue. It is an autoimmune response in the gut to gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley.

  • Repeated exposure to gluten causes damage to the lining of the small intestine.

Most at risk are Caucasians with:

  • Family history of celiac disease.
  • Down syndrome.
  • Type 1 diabetes.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Autoimmune thyroid disease.

Symptoms include digestive upset with gas, bloating, and diarrhea. The malnutrition causes fatigue, weight loss, fragile bones, severe skin rash, mouth ulcers, anemia, and damage to the spleen and nervous system.

A swollen belly, failure to thrive, muscle wasting, and learning disabilities are seen in children, and normal growth and development can be severely affected.

Diagnosis is made through blood testing and endoscopy, and sometimes biopsy of the small intestine.

There is no cure for the condition, but celiac disease can be managed by removing all gluten from the diet. Nutritional supplements will be used and sometimes steroid medication is given to help heal the gut.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, stomach bloating, nausea, constipation, diarrhea

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Overactive thyroid

The thyroid is a small, bow-tie shaped gland in your neck. Its main job is to produce thyroid hormone (known as T3 or T4), which serves a wide array of functions throughout the body.

When too much thyroid hormone is released, the body’s metabolism gets ramped up, causing symptoms ...

Irritable bowel syndrome (ibs)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic disorder of the large intestine. It is characterized by recurrent abdominal pain and bowel movement issues that can be difficult to treat. Signs and symptoms of IBS are usually not severe or life-threateni...

Other conditions

Other conditions and sensitivities can result in diarrhea.

  • Food allergies: Sensitivity to a food can cause diarrhea in some individuals.
  • Lactose intolerance: An inability to tolerate milk/dairy
  • Celiac disease: Intolerance of gluten from wheat, rye, and barley
  • Crohn's and ulcerative colitis: Diarrhea caused by inflammatory bowel diseases like IBD typically cause rectal bleeding, weight loss, and fatigue. IBD requires specialized medical treatment.
  • Colon cancer: Colon cancer can cause both diarrhea and constipation. Other symptoms include bright red blood in the toilet or on the toilet paper after a bowel movement, stomach pain, fatigue, weight loss, and anemia.

So... which condition is actually causing your diarrhea?

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Diarrhea treatments and relief

At-home treatments for diarrhea

Most diarrhea will stop on its own after three to seven days. During that time, it is important to stay well-hydrated and have a healthy intake of sodium, which helps you maintain hydration. IV rehydration might be necessary if food and beverages by mouth are not well-tolerated. Binding foods can also help the intestines absorb more water, resulting in better formed stools.

  • Bananas
  • Rice, potatoes, noodles, and crackers
  • Apples
  • Toast made from wheat or oat flour
  • Yogurt: However, other dairy products could exacerbate diarrhea

Medications like loperamide or bismuth salicylate and diphenoxylate are anti-diarrheal and could also provide some temporary relief.

When diarrhea is an emergency

You should seek immediate care for diarrhea symptoms if:

  • You have had diarrhea for more than 24 hours
  • You have more than six loose stools in 24 hours
  • You have small bowel movements stained with blood or mucus
  • You have diarrhea that is bloody or black
  • You have severe abdominal pain
  • You have signs of dehydration: Such as dry mouth, dizziness, confusion, muscle cramping, and excessive thirst
  • You have a fever: One that is >100.4
  • You are over 70 years old
  • You are pregnant
  • You have just finished taking a course of antibiotics

FAQs about diarrhea

What causes diarrhea?

Diarrhea is frequent loose or watery bowel movements. Diarrhea can be due to infections such as viruses, bacteria from food or water, parasites (more commonly associated with foreign travel), digestive problems, food allergy (such as gluten allergy), intestinal problems (such as irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease), after antibiotics, and drug side-effects.

Why do I have diarrhea?

Same as prior question (unless want the pathophysiology that I guess lay folks do not want)

Is diarrhea normal?

While an occasional loose stool is normal, three or more loose or watery stools defines diarrhea and is not normal. Almost everybody has diarrhea at least once with the average person having it several times a year. Most of the time, it lasts only a few days and resolves without treatment.

Can diarrhea cause dehydration?

Frequent and watery bowel movements can lead to dehydration, especially when the diarrhea occurs every 3060 minutes. Severe diarrhea causes loss of fluid and electrolytes. Diarrhea severe enough to cause signs of dehydration needs medical attention, especially in elderly or immunocompromised persons.

How long does diarrhea last?

Diarrhea can be acute (short-term) and last days, or chronic (long-term), and last weeks or more. Most of the time, diarrhea only lasts a few days and stops without needing medical attention.

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Questions your doctor may ask about diarrhea

  • Have you experienced any nausea?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • How would you describe the consistency and color of your diarrhea?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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  2. Barr W, Smith A. Acute Diarrhea in Adults. American Family Physician. 2014;89(3):180-189. AAFP Link.
  3. Symptoms & Causes of Diarrhea. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Published November 2016. NIDDK Link.
  4. Lamont JT. Patient Education: Chronic Diarrhea in Adults (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. Updated October 4, 2018. UpToDate Link.
  5. Dehydration and Diarrhea. Paediatrics & Child Health. 2003;8(7):459-460. NCBI Link.
  6. Rehydration Therapy. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated May 15, 2018. CDC Link.