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Watery Diarrhea Symptoms

Watery diarrhea is a common sign of infection, but can also be caused by other inflammatory diseases, or cancer-related diagnoses. For most people, watery diarrhea is dangerous only if it causes severe dehydration. As the body eliminates the infections and repairs the walls of the intestines, symptoms resolve within a few weeks. It is important to watch for large amounts of blood in stool and to continue to consume both water and electrolytes to replace the fluid lost through diarrhea. For the vast majority of people, if you can deal with diarrhea responsibly with fluid replacement, you will recover well. This article will discuss both the most common and most dangerous causes of watery diarrhea.

Characteristics

Associated characteristics of watery diarrhea may include the following.

Watery Diarrhea Causes Overview

Acute Causes

Acute causes are those that have a sudden onset and a relatively speedy resolution (e.g. one to two weeks). These forms of diarrhea are usually caused by an infection. Unless an individual has a weakened immune system, they can often clear and destroy the infection-causing agent themselves (provided they avoid becoming excessively dehydrated in the process). Accordingly, the treatment for most infectious diarrhea is supportive care with some variations, such as whether you need to take an antibiotic, which will depend on your specific case and stamina.

  • Viruses: Viruses are usually not life-threatening and there are a wide array of viruses that cause diarrhea in different parts of the world and in different seasons. Common types of viruses include norovirus, adenovirus, astrovirus, and rotavirus among others. They can occur in enclosed spaces like cruise ships or college dorms. In all but the very young, very old, and immunosuppressed, they are not life-threatening. If you suspect that you have a virus causing diarrhea, stay hydrated with soups, broths, and electrolyte drinks and get plenty of rest. Remember to wash your hands and keep your living areas sanitized and tidy so the illness doesn't spread to your house or roommates [1].
  • Bacteria: Bacteria are also rarely life-threatening, but in some select cases can cause more severe diarrhea or can affect other organ systems. Common bacteria include salmonella, campylobacter, shigella, multiple strains of E. Coli, and Clostridium difficile. Similarly to viral causes, most of these types of bacteria will cause illness that resolves on its own. However, Shigella and a type of E. Coli called Enterogenic Hemorrhagic E. Coli can release toxins that interfere with, and, in large amounts, can shut down the proper functioning of the kidneys. When this occurs, dialysis or an artificial filtering system for the kidneys is necessary until they recover [2,3].
  • Protozoa: Protozoa are often treated with antibiotics even though the body can frequently eliminate protozoa without treatment. Treatment in most cases shortens the duration, and, importantly, the transmission of the disease to other individuals. Giardia, a type of bacteria that occurs when drinking fresh, untreated water from streams or lakes, is treated with antiprotozoal agents because of its ease of transmission. However, in some cases like Cyclospora, diarrhea can continue unabated for months and it is treated primarily to shorten the duration of infection [4].

Chronic Causes

Chronic causes of watery diarrhea are those that are longer-lasting or more difficult to eradicate and may require hospitalization.

  • Chronic Infections (C. Difficile, Campylobacter): Some infections like C. difficile occur in part because of treatment for other diseases. C. difficile is a bacterium that lives peacefully in a normal bowel as it is often kept at low levels by normal gut bacteria. However, for individuals treated with antibiotics, the normal gut bacteria may have been killed along with the harmful bacteria causing an infection. This leaves C. difficile unchecked and able to reproduce in large amounts. C. difficile, unless treated with targeted antibiotics for C. difficile and / or the replacement of normal gut bacteria, will continue to produce watery diarrhea. Often treatment of C. difficile requires admission to the hospital for monitoring and proper treatment to avoid dangerous levels of dehydration. It is often (but not always) first treated with the antibiotic vancomycin.
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease: This can affect either the small intestine, large intestine, or both. It may produce watery diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, mucus-laden diarrhea or a mixture of the three. It is commonly treated with drugs that temper and lower the immune response. If you have long-standing watery diarrhea that does not respond to antibiotics, you may have inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome. However, a proper diagnosis will require a colonoscopy (or a scope usually inserted through the anus) to examine the walls of the intestines.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome: This can have many different kinds of symptoms. It can manifest as constipation (IBS-C), diarrhea (IBS-D), or mixed (IBS-M). Irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea is defined as abdominal pain or discomfort lasting at least three days per month with improvement on defecation and onset of discomfort associated with a change in the frequency of stool or the appearance of stool. It should be noted that IBS is a syndrome which means a series of symptoms, not a single disease. Treatments vary widely from avoidance of food allergens and lactose and increasing consumption of fiber and physical activity levels. Irritable bowel syndrome is only diagnosed after inflammatory bowel disease or cancer has been ruled out.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Watery Diarrhea

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced watery diarrhea. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  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.

    Rarity:
    Common
    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
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  2. 2.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

    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
  3. 3.Diarrhea Caused by a Bacteria Called Vibrio

    Vibrio parahaemolyticus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera and Vibrio vulnificus. It can be contracted by consuming raw or undercooked shellfish, or exposure to sea or brackish water, and causes gastrointestinal illness (i.e. diarrhea often with abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills) in humans.

    Symptoms will usually resolve within 2 to 3 days without antibiotics.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    diarrhea, nausea, stomach bloating, headache, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps)
    Symptoms that always occur with diarrhea caused by a bacteria called vibrio:
    diarrhea
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  4. 4.Normal Occurrence of Diarrhea

    Diarrhea has numerous causes including bacteria, viruses, parasites, medications, food intolerance & digestive system diseases.

    1 day

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    diarrhea, mild diarrhea
    Symptoms that always occur with normal occurrence of diarrhea:
    diarrhea
    Symptoms that never occur with normal occurrence of diarrhea:
    bloody diarrhea, severe diarrhea, worsening diarrhea, being severely ill, ill appearance
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment

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  5. 5.Microscopic Colitis

    Inflammation is the body's normal response to injury, irritation, or infection of tissues. Sometimes, this inflammation can happen abnormally, affecting normal tissue. Sometimes, this can happen in the intestines, which can cause chronic diarrhea.

    This can be a chronic condition with relapses. If treatment is started, symptoms usually resolve within a few weeks.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain (stomach ache), stomach bloating
    Symptoms that always occur with microscopic colitis:
    diarrhea
    Symptoms that never occur with microscopic colitis:
    bloody diarrhea
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  6. 6.Food Poisoning by the Staphylococcus Bacteria

    Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium that can be spread by food workers who handle food without washing their hands, and can also be found in unpasteurized milk and cheese products. Infection with this bacterium causes a stomach and intestinal illness in a short period of time, with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea.

    Non-contagious illness usually lasting for 1 day (may take up to 3 days in rare cases).

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    nausea, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), vomiting
    Symptoms that always occur with food poisoning by the staphylococcus bacteria:
    nausea or vomiting
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  7. 7.Traveler's Diarrhea

    Traveler's diarrhea is a digestive tract disorder that commonly causes loose stools and abdominal cramps. It's caused by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water.

    Usually resolves within 3 to 5 days without antibiotics.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain (stomach ache), fever, stomach bloating
    Symptoms that always occur with traveler's diarrhea:
    diarrhea
    Symptoms that never occur with traveler's diarrhea:
    anxiety
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  8. 8.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

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    diarrhea, general abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, watery diarrhea, fatigue
    Symptoms that always occur with shigella infection:
    diarrhea
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  9. 9.Intestinal Infection With Ameba Parasite

    Visiting or living in places with poor sanitation can lead to parasite infections that can cause long-lasting diarrhea and stomach pain.

    More than 90% of the time, parasites goes away on its own over the course of 6 weeks.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea, constipation, general abdominal pain
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

Watery Diarrhea Treatments and Relief

Treatments for watery diarrhea vary widely, though they all have the same starting point: stay hydrated. Depending on the eventual cause of watery diarrhea and how long it lasts, you may end up taking antibiotics or undergoing a colonoscopy to examine your intestines for signs of inflammatory disease.

  • Antibiotics: These are common for bacterial and protozoal causes. Remember that you will not receive antibiotics for a viral cause of diarrhea. If your symptoms do not improve within a week of taking antibiotics, you should call your physician and ask whether you need a new appointment.
  • Diagnostic workup: This will be necessary if you have diarrhea that is found to be non-infectious and if it persists for longer than a couple weeks. This may involve a collection of your stool for examination under a microscope and culturing to find out if any pathogen is causing your symptoms. Once a pathogen has been identified, it may be treated with antibiotics. If an inflammatory condition is found, it may be treated over a longer period of time with medications that decrease inflammation in the gut.
  • Dietary restriction: This is a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. Certain foods like lactose may be undigestible and cause chronic diarrhea, and other foods may cause an allergy that damages the gut and leads to symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. The process of dietary restriction usually take a longer period of time, and involves cutting out many foods and slowly adding in foods one at a time to determine what is acceptable to the intestines.

Seek immediate treatment for the following

You should seek help without delay if:

  • You have an inability to replace the fluids you are losing
  • You feel dizzy, lightheaded or lose consciousness
  • You do not improve on antibiotics
  • You have symptoms for longer than two days
  • You have a recurrence of symptoms without being exposed to the same initial cause

FAQs About Watery Diarrhea

Here are some frequently asked questions about watery diarrhea.

What causes watery diarrhea?

Watery diarrhea can be caused by an inability to absorb the water that you drink, the water in food, or the secretion of water from the gut following infection or consumption of something that pulls water from the gut. Common examples are consumption of excess lactose or xylose — sugars that are not easily digested — as well as cholera.

How do you know when to seek care for dehydration?

If you feel faint, dizzy, or nauseous, or have lost consciousness, you may be dangerously dehydrated. A lack of fluids can cause low blood pressure, confusion, or a loss of consciousness if it is severe. Kidney failure can also occur if a loss of fluid is especially rapid. If you stop urinating for an extended period of time, you should be concerned about potential kidney injury.

When should you seek medical care for watery diarrhea?

If you find blood or mucus in your diarrhea, if you have difficulty maintaining adequate hydration either because of nausea or because of excessive or continuous liquid diarrhea, if you lose consciousness, become confused, stop sweating, or stop urinating you should seek care immediately.

How long does watery diarrhea usually last?

Watery diarrhea can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Often even severe watery diarrhea can and will resolve on its own. It is important, however, to maintain adequate hydration. Diarrhea from a dietary cause will continue until the substance has left your system. Diarrhea from a toxin or from an infection will continue until the body clears the infection or it is treated with antibiotics.

What are some other symptoms of watery diarrhea that may be more dangerous?

Blood in your diarrhea, mucus, completely watery diarrhea, a loss of color in your stool, large amounts of mucus, or symptoms of dehydration may be signs that you should seek urgent or emergent evaluation for complicated abdominal pain or dehydration.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Watery Diarrhea

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Have you experienced any nausea?
  • Q.Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Q.Have you lost your appetite recently?

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

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Watery Diarrhea Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced watery diarrhea have also experienced:

    • 21% Abdominal Pain (Stomach Ache)
    • 9% Nausea
    • 9% Abdominal Cramps (Stomach Cramps)
  • People who have experienced watery diarrhea had symptoms persist for:

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

    • 33% Viral (Norovirus) Infection
    • 33% Food Poisoning
    • 33% Diarrhea Caused by a Bacteria Called Vibrio
  • 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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References

  1. Musher DM, Musher BL. Contagious Acute Gastrointestinal Infections. N Engl J Med 2004; 351:2417-2427. NEJM Link
  2. Goldfarb JP, Brasitus TA, Cleri DJ. Shigella enterocolitis and acute renal failure. South Med J. 1982;75(4):492-3. PubMed Link
  3. Goldwater PN, Bettelheim KA. Treatment of enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) infection and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). BMC Med. 2012;10:12. Published 2012 Feb 2. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-10-12. NCBI Link
  4. Shane AL, Mody RK, Crump JA, et al. 2017 Infectious Diseases Society of America Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Infectious Diarrhea. Clin Infect Dis. 2017 Nov 29;65(12):e45-e80. PubMed Link