Robert Burakoff, MD, MPH, is board-certified in gastroentrology. He is the vice chair for ambulatory services for the department of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
Diarrhea is characterized by the unpleasant experience of having loose and watery stools three or more times a day. It has a wide range of possible causes, including food poisoning, infection, medications, food allergies or intolerances, inflammatory conditions, and malabsorption syndromes. Appropriate treatment will depend on the underlying cause.
Diarrhea can lead to complications such as dehydration or even malnutrition, especially if it's ongoing. While loose stools usually improve after a day or two, you should see your doctor if your symptoms are severe or if the diarrhea persists or is chronic. Likewise, any case of diarrhea in an infant or child should be evaluated by a pediatrician.
Diarrhea can have many possible causes, such as stomach flu, eating too much fruit or fiber, or food poisoning, in which you've ingested contaminated food or water. Diarrhea is also a side effect of many medications. Chronic diarrhea may be due to a health condition, like celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease, or a food intolerance, like fructose or lactose malabsorption.
A lot of times, diarrhea will go away on its own in a day or two, but to slow down acute cases of diarrhea, there are some home remedies that may help. Try following the bananas, rice, apple, toast (BRAT) diet, staying hydrated with coconut water, getting extra rest, or using over-the-counter therapies. If your diarrhea lasts more than three days, be sure to call your doctor.
Ideally, you'll want to eat foods that are simple, starchy, and low in fiber. Crackers and toast, white potatoes, white rice, bananas, and low-fat yogurt are all good options. Broths and soups can be helpful to keep you hydrated. Stay away from fried foods, artificial sweeteners, milk, and spicy foods.
Diarrhea generally lasts anywhere from two days to two weeks in acute instances, but in chronic situations, it may last for longer—several weeks or more. Your diarrhea may resolve on its own, but if it seems to be an ongoing issue, talk to your doctor about looking for an underlying condition. In children, see a doctor if symptoms don't resolve in 24 hours.
When you're stressed or anxious, your body activates a programmed fight-or-flight response, which may cause colon contractions to increase, triggering diarrhea. If this only happens rarely, it's likely just situational, but if you're experiencing stress-related diarrhea regularly, ask your doctor about irritable bowel syndrome, which can be worsened by stress.
A procedure used to diagnose colon disorders or screen for colon cancer. After sedation, a colonoscope (a long tube with a camera) is inserted into the rectum to view the entire large intestine, and transmits images as it passes through. To prepare for a colonoscopy, all fecal matter must be removed from the large intestine through what's known as a bowel prep.
A minimally invasive diagnostic procedure often used to diagnose IBS, IBD, and other gastrointestinal conditions. A sigmoidoscopy differs from a colonoscopy in that it only examines the rectum and the lowest part of the large intestine, the sigmoid colon. The procedure involves inserting a flexible scope into the rectum. No sedation is necessary.
An umbrella term describing two conditions affecting the gastrointestinal tract: ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Both have similar symptoms, including persistent diarrhea, abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, mucus in stool, and unintended weight loss.
A disorder of the colon, which is part of the large intestine. IBS is a chronic condition whose causes are not well understood, though it may have genetic roots, and it may be triggered by menstrual cycle hormones. Symptoms of IBS include ongoing diarrhea and/or constipation, abdominal pain, and bloating. Treatment is multifaceted and may include medications and lifestyle modifications.
A test used to check for the presence of blood in stool, as well as to help in the diagnosis of various gastrointestinal conditions, such as colon or gastric cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, and others. There are two types of stool tests: fecal occult blood test, which checks for blood, and a stool DNA test, which checks for polyps and tumors.
Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. The facts about inflammatory bowel diseases. Updated November 2014.
Foley A, Burgell R, Barrett JS, Gibson PR. Management strategies for abdominal bloating and distension. Gastroenterol Hepatol. (N Y). 2014;10(9):561-571.
Chang Y, El-Zataari M, Kao J. Does stress induce bowel dysfunction?. Expert Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2014;8(6):583–585. doi:10.1586/17474124.2014.911659
Hatchette TF, Farina D. Infectious diarrhea: when to test and when to treat. CMAJ. 2011;183(3):339-344. doi:10.1503/cmaj.091495
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Symptoms & causes of diarrhea. Updated November 2016.