What is diarrhea? What causes diarrhea?

Diarrhea is loose, watery stools.  It is usually considered diarrhea when you have loose stools at least three times per day.  Acute diarrhea, meaning diarrhea that lasts for less than 14 days, is a common problem and usually resolves within a day or two and usually resolves on its own.  If you experience diarrhea for more than a few days it could be a sign of a more serious issue.  If you experience chronic diarrhea, diarrhea lasting more than 4 weeks, it may be a symptom of a chronic disease.  Experiencing diarrhea is common among people of all ages.  In the United States it is estimated that adults average one case of acute diarrhea each year.  It is estimated that on average children experience a bout of acute diarrhea twice per year. 

The most common issue that accompanies diarrhea is dehydration.  This happens because loose stools contain more fluid and electrolytes and weigh more than solid stools.  Dehydration is especially dangerous in older adults, children, and people with weakened immune systems.  Some signs of dehydration are: thirst, infrequent urination, dark-colored urine, no tears when crying, sunken eyes, high fever, listlessness, and irritability.  Diarrhea can also be accompanied by cramping, abdominal pain, nausea, and urgency.  If an infection is the cause of the diarrhea, it can be accompanied by fever, chills or bloody stools.

Acute diarrhea is most commonly caused by a bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection.  Chronic diarrhea is usually related to a functional digestive disorder such as irritable bowel syndrome or an intestinal disease such as Crohn’s disease or chronic ulcerative colitis.  Other common causes of diarrhea are food intolerances and sensitivities, and reactions to certain medications.

You should contact you physician if you are experiencing diarrhea and have any signs of dehydration, diarrhea lasting longer than 2 days, a fever higher than 102 degrees, stool containing blood or pus, stools that are back and tarry, or severe abdominal or rectal pain.

  1. Diarrhea.”  Mayo Clinic.  Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.  June 26, 2010. Web 29 March 2013.
  2.  “Diarrhea.”  National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC).  NIH Publication.  January 2011.  Web 29 March 2013.