Diarrhea

Is this your symptom?

  • Diarrhea is the sudden increase in the frequency and looseness of bowel movements (BMs)
  • Mild diarrhea is the passage of a few loose or mushy BMs
  • Severe diarrhea is the passage of many watery BMs

Some Basics...

  • Diarrhea lasting for less than 2 weeks is often from an infection in the intestines. Most often it is a virus. Diarrhea is the body's way of getting rid of the infection. Other causes of new onset diarrhea are food poisoning and drugs.
  • Staying hydrated is the most important thing for adults with diarrhea.
  • An adult who feels well and is not thirsty or dizzy is not dehydrated. A few loose or runny stools do not cause dehydration. Having many watery stools can cause dehydration.
  • Antibiotics are usually not needed to treat diarrhea.
  • However, people who have Traveler's Diarrhea should get antibiotic treatment. If a person has traveled abroad in the past month and has diarrhea, they may need antibiotics.

What Are Signs of Dehydration?

Signs of dehydration include:

  • Feeling dizzy
  • Dry mouth
  • Feeling like fainting
  • Very thirsty
  • Pale skin
  • No urine in more than 12 hours
  • Dark yellow urine

Severity of Diarrhea is defined as:

  • No Diarrhea
  • Mild: Few loose or mushy BMs; increase of 1-3 stools over normal daily number of stools.
  • Moderate: Increase of 4-6 stools daily over normal.
  • Severe (or "Worst Possible"): Increase of 7 or more stools daily over normal; incontinence.

When to Call for Diarrhea

Call 911 Now

  • Very weak (can't stand)
  • You think you have a life-threatening emergency

Call Doctor Now or Go to ER

  • Severe diarrhea (7 or more times/day more than normal) and lasts more than 24 hours
  • Severe diarrhea (7 or more times/day more than normal) and age more than 60 years
  • Fever over 103° F (39.4° C)
  • You feel dehydrated (dizzy, dry mouth, very thirsty)
  • You feel weak or very sick
  • You think you need to be seen, and the problem is urgent

Call Doctor Within 24 Hours

  • Moderate diarrhea (4-6 times/day more than normal) and lasts more than 2 days
  • Moderate diarrhea (4-6 times/day more than normal) and age more than 60 years
  • Fever over 100.4° F (38.0° C)
  • Stomach pain that does not get better after each diarrhea stool
  • Mucus or pus in stool for more than 2 days
  • Small amount of blood in stool
  • Recent use of antibiotics
  • Have diabetes
  • Have a weak immune system (HIV, cancer chemo, long-term steroid use, splenectomy)
  • Traveled abroad in the past month
  • Getting tube feedings (nasogastric, g-tube, j-tube)
  • You think you need to be seen, but the problem is not urgent

Call Doctor During Office Hours

  • Mild diarrhea (1-3 times/day more than normal) that lasts more than 7 days
  • Diarrhea off and on for weeks or months (are frequent, come and go)
  • You have other questions or concerns

Self Care at Home

  • Diarrhea

Care Advice

Severe Diarrhea

  1. What You Should Know:
    • Sometimes the cause is an infection caused by a virus ('stomach flu') or a bacteria. Diarrhea is one of the body's ways of getting rid of germs.
    • Certain foods (e.g., dairy products, supplements like Ensure) can also trigger diarrhea.
    • In some patients, the exact cause is never found.
    • Staying well-hydrated is the key for adults with diarrhea.
    • Diarrhea lasting less than 2 weeks is often from an infection in the intestines. Most often it is a virus. Diarrhea is the body's way of getting rid of the infection. Other causes of new onset diarrhea are food poisoning and drugs.
    • Wash your hands after each bowel movement.
    • You can treat mild diarrhea at home.
    • Here is some care advice that should help.
  2. Drink Fluids During Severe Diarrhea:
    • Drink more fluids, at least 8-10 cups daily. One cup equals 8 oz. (240 ml).
    • Water: Even for severe diarrhea, water is often the best liquid to drink.
    • You should also eat some salty foods (potato chips, pretzels, saltine crackers). It is important to make sure you are getting enough salt, sugars and fluids to meet your body's needs.
    • Sports drinks: You can also drink sports drinks (Gatorade, Powerade) to help treat and prevent dehydration. For it to work best, mix it half and half with water.
    • Avoid drinks with caffeine. These can dehydrate you.
    • Avoid alcohol.
  3. Food and Nutrition During Severe Diarrhea:
    • Drinking enough liquids is more important than eating when you have severe diarrhea.
    • As the diarrhea starts to get better, you can slowly return to a normal diet.
    • Begin with boiled starches/cereals (e.g., potatoes, rice, noodles, wheat, oats) with a small amount of salt to taste.
    • Other foods that are OK include: bananas, yogurt, crackers, soup.
  4. Wash Your Hands:
    • Be certain to wash your hands after using the restroom.
    • If your work is cooking, handling, serving or preparing food, then you should not work until the diarrhea has completely stopped.
  5. What to Expect: Viral diarrhea lasts 4-7 days. It is always worse on days 1 and 2.
  6. Call Your Doctor If:
    • You are dehydrated (dizzy, dry mouth, very thirsty)
    • Severe diarrhea lasts more than 1 day
    • Diarrhea lasts more than 7 days
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Mild to Moderate Diarrhea

  1. What You Should Know:
    • Sometimes the cause is an infection caused by a virus ('stomach flu') or a bacteria. Diarrhea is one of the body's way of getting rid of germs.
    • Certain foods (such as dairy products, supplements like Ensure) can also trigger diarrhea.
    • In some patients, the exact cause is never found.
    • Staying well-hydrated is the key for adults with diarrhea.
    • Here is some general care advice that should help.
  2. Fluid Therapy During Mild-Moderate Diarrhea:
    • Drink more fluids, at least 8-10 cups daily. One cup equals 8 oz (240 ml).
    • Water: For mild to moderate diarrhea, water is often the best liquid to drink. You should also eat some salty foods (e.g., potato chips, pretzels, saltine crackers). This is important to make sure you are getting enough salt, sugars, and fluids to meet your body's needs.
    • Sports drinks: You can also drink sports drinks (e.g., Gatorade, Powerade) to help treat and prevent dehydration. For it to work best, mix it half and half with water.
    • Avoid drinks with caffeine. These can dehydrate you.
    • Avoid alcohol.
  3. Food and Nutrition during Mild-Moderate Diarrhea
    • You can eat when you are having diarrhea. In fact, it is healthy for your intestines.
    • Begin with boiled starches / cereals (e.g., potatoes, rice, noodles, wheat, oats) with a small amount of salt to taste.
    • Other foods that are OK include: bananas, yogurt, crackers, soup.
    • As the diarrhea starts to get better, you can slowly return to a normal diet.
  4. Wash Your Hands:
    • Be certain to wash your hands after using the restroom.
    • If your work is cooking, handling, serving or preparing food, then you should not work until the diarrhea has completely stopped.
  5. What to Expect: Viral diarrhea lasts 4-7 days. It is always worse on days 1 and 2.
  6. Call Your Doctor If:
    • You are dehydrated (dizzy, dry mouth, very thirsty)
    • Severe diarrhea lasts more than 1 day
    • Diarrhea lasts more than 7 days
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

Over-the-Counter Medicines for Diarrhea

  1. Diarrhea Medicine:
    • You can take one of the following drugs for diarrhea: loperamide (Imodium AD) or bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol).
    • They are over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. You can buy them at the drugstore.
    • Use the lowest amount of a drug that makes your diarrhea feel better.
    • Read the instructions and warnings on the package insert for all medicines you take.
  2. Call Your Doctor If:
    • You have more questions
    • You think you need to be seen
    • You get worse

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the 'Call Your Doctor' symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.


Last Reviewed: 8/18/2017 1:15:40 AM
Last Updated: 5/7/2017 1:36:01 PM

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