Diarrhea describes loose, watery stools that occur more frequently than usual. You may also experience abdominal cramps and a greater volume of stool. Diarrhea varies in specific symptoms, severity and duration.
Acute diarrhea usually lasts for a few days and is typically caused by a bacterial, viral or parasitic infection of some sort.
Chronic diarrhea persists longer than does acute diarrhea, generally longer than three weeks. Chronic diarrhea can indicate a serious disorder, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, or a less serious condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Most cases of diarrhea clear on their own without treatment. However, diarrhea may cause a loss of significant amounts of water and salts. See your doctor if you experience any of the following.
Seek immediate medical attention
In children, particularly young children, diarrhea — especially if combined with either fever or vomiting or both — can sometimes lead to dehydration. Call your doctor if your child's diarrhea doesn't improve after 24 hours or if your baby:
- Hasn't had a wet diaper in three or more hours
- Has a fever of more than 102 F (39 C)
- Has bloody or black stools
- Has a dry mouth or cries without tears
- Is unusually sleepy, drowsy, unresponsive or irritable
- Has a sunken appearance to the abdomen, eyes or cheeks
- Has skin that doesn't flatten if pinched and released
Schedule a doctor's visit
In adults, diarrhea usually resolves on its own without any complications. See your doctor if:
- Your diarrhea persists beyond two days without any sign of improvement
- You become dehydrated — as evidenced by excessive thirst, dry mouth or skin, little or no urination, severe weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness, or dark-colored urine
- You have severe abdominal or rectal pain
- You have bloody or black stools
- You have a fever of more than 102 F (39 C)
June 11, 2013
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- Diarrhea. National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/diarrhea/index.htm. Accessed April 5, 2013.
- Ferri FF. Practical Guide to the Care of the Medical Patient. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Mosby Elsevier; 2010. http://www.mdconsult.com/books/page.do?eid=4-u1.0-B978-0-323-07158-1..00003-1--s8700&isbn=978-0-323-07158-1&sid=1411661283&uniqId=403732597-3#4-u1.0-B978-0-323-07158-1..00003-1--s8715. Accessed April 5, 2013.