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