What Are Abdominal Pain and Diarrhea?

Abdominal pain is pain that originates between the chest and the pelvis. Abdominal pain can be cramp-like, achy, dull, or sharp. It is often called stomachache.

Diarrhea is loose, watery stools and/or a frequent need to go to the bathroom. It sometimes accompanies abdominal pain.

Find an internist near you »

Indigestion, the stomach flu, and food poisoning are common causes of acute diarrhea and abdominal pain. In these cases, symptoms last for less than four days and often resolve without medical treatment.

Bacterial infections, viral infections, and certain parasites also cause these symptoms.

Organs in the abdomen include the intestines, the kidneys, the appendix, the spleen, the stomach, the gallbladder, and the liver. Infections or diseases that affect these organs can cause pain with diarrhea.

Diarrhea and abdominal pain that last for more than a week or that frequently reoccur may be a sign of an intestinal disease or disorder.

What Causes Abdominal Pain and Diarrhea?

Most people occasionally experience occasional abdominal pain and diarrhea for short periods. Dietary changes, consuming too much alcohol, and indigestion may cause these symptoms.

People traveling to foreign countries, especially from industrialized countries to less-developed regions, may experience “traveler’s diarrhea” and stomachache. Bacterial or viral infection caused by contaminated food or water is the usual cause.

Frequent, constant, or severe abdominal pain and diarrhea may indicate a disease or a more serious medical issue.

Common causes of abdominal pain and diarrhea include:

  • viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
  • bacterial gastroenteritis (food poisoning)
  • food allergies
  • PMS
  • lactose intolerance
  • parasites (for example, giardiasis, hookworm, or amebiasis)
  • bacterial infection (for example, shigellosis or e. coli)
  • irritable bowel syndrome

Other causes include:

  • drug allergies
  • appendicitis
  • diverticulitis
  • fecal impaction
  • intestinal obstruction
  • cystic fibrosis
  • colitis
  • celiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • West Nile virus
  • some forms of cancer

When to Seek Medical Help

Seek medical help for anyone who experiences abdominal pain and diarrhea that last for three days, that grow increasingly severe over a 24-hour period, or that are accompanied by any of these symptoms:

  • frequent nausea or vomiting
  • a sustained fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit (100.4 degrees for children)
  • stool that contains blood or dried blood (which looks like wet coffee grounds)
  • an inability to keep food down
  • extreme thirst or dry mouth
  • an inability to speak or see
  • mental confusion or loss of consciousness
  • yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • seizures
  • swelling of the genitals
  • external bleeding

Diarrhea can be more dangerous for infants, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. In these cases, discuss symptoms with a medical professional.

How Are Abdominal Pain and Diarrhea Treated?

Medical treatments for abdominal pain and diarrhea will address the underlying condition.

Home Care

It is important for people experiencing abdominal pain and diarrhea to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of clear liquids, such as water, juice, and broth. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.

As bowel movements become more regular, eat small amounts of low-fiber, mild foods such as plain toast, rice, and eggs. Avoid spicy, high-fat, and high-fiber foods.  

Probiotics may help your digestive system heal. Natural probiotics are found in foods such as yogurt, and probiotic supplements are available.

Many over-the-counter medications can ease stomach pain and diarrhea caused by infections or indigestion. Consult with a pharmacist or your doctor for advice on their use. Always follow package instructions when taking over-the-counter medications.

How Can I Prevent Abdominal Pain and Diarrhea?

Not all conditions that cause abdominal pain and diarrhea can be prevented. But eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet, limiting alcohol, limiting spicy and fatty foods, and drinking plenty of water can prevent indigestion and stomach upset.

Washing hands frequently can prevent some viral infections that cause these symptoms.

Practice good hygiene when preparing food. Wash kitchen work surfaces frequently and store food properly.

When traveling in areas with lower sanitation standards, be careful about what you eat and drink. Avoid tap water, ice cubes, and raw foods (including peeled fruits and vegetables). The Centers for Disease Control lists disease warnings and travel advisories on its website. Consult this list and/or your doctor before traveling abroad.