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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!

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.

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 chillies.

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) [1,2].

Typically, diarrhea not caused by eating spicy foods or trying a totally vegan diet for the first time is because someone has been infected with 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.

Diarrhea may or may not be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, stomach pain, rectal bleeding, fatigue and/or weight loss. Fortunately, almost all cases of diarrhea will stop on their own, even without treatment, within two to three days.

Let's take a detailed look at the top five causes of diarrhea [3,4].

Diarrhea Causes

Causes of diarrhea include:

  • 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.

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

  • 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.

  • Inflammatory bowel diseases – 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.

9 Possible Conditions

The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced diarrhea. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

  1. 1.Viral (Norovirus) Infection

    Noroviruses are a group of related viruses that leads to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps. These viruses cause gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and intestines. When the diarrhea and/or vomiting is severe, dehydration can occur. Symptoms of dehydration include a dry mouth, dizziness, urinating less frequently and dark urine.

    Usually resolves within 2-3 days.

    Top Symptoms:
    diarrhea, vomiting or nausea, fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain (stomach ache), headache
    Symptoms that always occur with viral (norovirus) infection:
    diarrhea, vomiting or nausea
    Symptoms that never occur with viral (norovirus) infection:
    severe abdominal pain, throbbing headache, severe headache, tarry stool, vaginal bleeding, alertness level change
  2. 2.Viral (Rotavirus) Infection

    Rotavirus is a virus that causes an infection of the gut, known as gastroenteritis. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting and fever. When the diarrhea and/or vomiting is severe, dehydration can occur. Symptoms of dehydration include a dry mouth, dizziness, urinating less frequently and dark urine.

    Symptoms resolve on their own within a few days.

    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
  3. 3.Salmonella Infection

    Salmonella is a bacterium found in contaminated foods such as farm-to-table eggs, unpasteurized dairy, and undercooked poultry. Infection with Salmonella causes inflammation of the small and large intestines, and can lead to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and sometimes fever.

    Symptoms will resolve without antibiotics in 3 to 7 days.

    Top Symptoms:
    abdominal pain (stomach ache), diarrhea, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), fever, being severely ill
    Symptoms that always occur with salmonella infection:
    Phone call or in-person visit
  4. 4.Shigella Infection

    Shigella infection is an acute bacterial infection caused by a group of bacteria called shigella. The infection affects the intestines and can be passed through direct contact with the bacteria in the stool.

    4 to 6 weeks

    Top Symptoms:
    diarrhea, general abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, watery diarrhea, fatigue
    Symptoms that always occur with shigella infection:

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  5. 5.Food Poisoning

    Food poisoning is a common ailment that causes gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. It is caused by improperly handled or unrefrigerated food.

    1-3 days

    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
  6. 6.E. Coli Infection

    EHEC, or Enterhemorrhagic Escherichia coli, is a strain of bacterium that can be acquired worldwide through eating contaminated food, especially undercooked ground beef, raw produce, or ready-to-eat cold meats. Contracting this type of bacterium may lead to bloody diarrhea and severe pain the abdomen.

    With timely treatment, the disease will resolve within 2 to 5 days.

    Ultra rare
    Top Symptoms:
    diarrhea, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), being severely ill, general abdominal pain, fever
    In-person visit
  7. 7.Celiac Disease

    Celiac disease is an immune disease in which gluten damages the small intestine. Avoid products containing gluten such as wheat, rye, & barley.

    Upon starting a gluten-free diet, nausea and bloating are likely to improve within a few days or weeks. It may take months or longer to feel completely better.

    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, stomach bloating, nausea, constipation, diarrhea
    Primary care doctor
  8. 8.Overactive Thyroid

    The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, just above your collarbone. It is one of your endocrine glands, which make hormones. Thyroid glands control how fast one burns calories and how fast the heart beats. If the thyroid is too active, it makes more thyroid hormones than the body needs. This is called hyperthyroidism.

    Great prognosis with high remission rates

    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, anxiety, depressed mood, irritability, trouble sleeping
    Primary care doctor
  9. 9.Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Ibs)

    Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is very common problem that affects the large intestine. It can cause stomach pain, cramps, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. Doctors think that IBS is caused by the brain sending wrong messages to the bowels, such as during times of high stress, causing physical changes.

    IBS is a chronic condition that may last for years, but it is not life-threatening and does not damage the bowels or lead to more serious illnesses.

    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea or vomiting, constipation, stool changes
    Primary care doctor

Diarrhea Treatments, Relief and Prevention

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 [5,6]. IV rehydration might be necessary if food and beverages by mouth are not well-tolerated.

Binding foods can help the intestines absorb more water, resulting in better formed stools.

Binding foods include:

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

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

You should seek immediate care for diarrhea symptoms if you:

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

FAQs About Diarrhea

Here are some frequently asked questions 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 30–60 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.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Diarrhea

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

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our diarrhea symptom checker to find out more.

Diarrhea Quiz

Diarrhea Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced diarrhea have also experienced:

    • 20% Abdominal Pain (Stomach Ache)
    • 9% Nausea
    • 7% Abdominal Cramps (Stomach Cramps)
  • People who have experienced diarrhea had symptoms persist for:

    • 38% Less Than a Week
    • 37% Less Than a Day
    • 10% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced diarrhea were most often matched with:

    • 50% Salmonella Infection
    • 25% Viral (Norovirus) Infection
    • 25% Viral (Rotavirus) Infection
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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  1. Diarrhea. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated October 23, 2018. MedlinePlus Link.
  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.