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What causes diarrhea? 87 possible conditions

Diarrhea is a condition that’s characterized by the appearance of loose, watery stools or a frequent need to have a bowel movement. It usually lasts a few days and often disappears without any treatment.

Diarrhea may be related to a viral or bacterial infection and is sometimes the result of food poisoning. The condition commonly known as traveler’s diarrhea occurs when you’ve been exposed to bacteria or parasites while on vacation to developing countries.

Chronic diarrhea refers to diarrhea that lasts for at least four weeks and is usually the result of an intestinal disease or disorder.

What Causes Diarrhea?

Diarrhea may be caused by a variety of conditions or elements, including:

  • a food intolerance
  • a food allergy
  • an adverse reaction to a medication
  • a viral infection
  • a bacterial infection
  • an intestinal disease
  • a parasitic infection
  • gallbladder surgery
  • stomach surgery

Chronic diarrhea may be a symptom of a more serious condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Frequent and severe diarrhea could be a sign of intestinal disease or functional bowel disorder.

What Are the Symptoms of Diarrhea?

There are many different symptoms of diarrhea that can occur in any combination. The symptoms depend on the cause. You may experience:

  • nausea
  • abdominal pain
  • cramping
  • bloating
  • dehydration
  • fever
  • bloody stools
  • a frequent urge to evacuate your bowels
  • stool incontinence

Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms.

Diagnosing the Cause of Diarrhea

A doctor will complete a physical examination and consider your medical history when determining the cause of your diarrhea. They may also request laboratory tests to examine urine and blood samples. Additional tests your doctor may order to determine the cause of diarrhea and other related conditions can include:

  • fasting tests to determine whether a food intolerance or allergy is to blame
  • imaging tests to check for inflammation and structural abnormalities of the intestine
  • stool culture to check for bacteria, parasites, or signs of disease
  • colonoscopy to check the entire colon for signs of intestinal disease
  • sigmoidoscopy to check the rectum and lower colon for signs of intestinal disease

In cases of severe or chronic diarrhea, your doctor may order a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy to determine if an underlying intestinal condition is the cause.

Dehydration and Diarrhea

Diarrhea can cause you to lose fluids quickly and put you at risk for dehydration. If diarrhea is left untreated, it can be very serious. The symptoms of dehydration include:

  • fatigue
  • dry mucous membranes
  • increased heart rate
  • headache
  • lightheadedness
  • increased thirst
  • decreased urination
  • dry mouth

If you think your diarrhea is causing you to become dehydrated, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.

Treating Diarrhea

Treatment for diarrhea usually requires replacing lost fluids. This simply means you need to drink more water or electrolyte replacement beverages such as sports drinks. In more serious cases, you may get fluids through intravenous (IV) therapy. If a bacterial infection is causing your diarrhea, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.

Your doctor will decide your treatment based on:

  • the severity and frequency of the diarrhea and related condition
  • the degree of your dehydration status
  • factors such as your health, medical history, and age
  • your ability to tolerate different procedures or medications
  • expectations for improvement of your condition

Diarrhea in Babies and Young Children

Diarrhea is a serious condition in the very young. It can cause severe dehydration in an infant in just one day.

Call your child’s doctor or seek emergency care for the following symptoms:

  • signs of dehydration, including those listed above plus a lack of tears when crying, dry skin, sunken eyes or fontanel, sleepiness, and irritability
  • diarrhea for 24 hours or more
  • fever of 102°F or higher
  • stools that contain blood or pus
  • stools that are black and tarry

Preventing Diarrhea

Although diarrhea can occur for various reasons, there are actions that you can take to prevent it.

Avoid developing diarrhea from food poisoning by:

  • washing the cooking and food preparation areas more frequently
  • serving food immediately
  • refrigerating leftovers promptly
  • thawing food in the refrigerator

Traveler’s diarrhea is also preventable. If you’re planning a long vacation to a developing country, consider doing the following:

  • Ask your doctor if you can begin an antibiotic treatment before you leave. This will greatly reduce your risk of developing traveler’s diarrhea.
  • Avoid tap water, ice cubes, and fresh produce likely washed with tap water while you’re on vacation. Drink bottled water and eat cooked food only.

If you have diarrhea that was caused by a viral or bacterial infection, take these actions to prevent spreading the infection to others:

  • Wash your hands more frequently.
  • When you wash your hands, use soap and wash for 20 seconds.
  • Use hand sanitizer when washing your hands isn’t possible.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Viral Gastroenteritis

Viral gastroenteritis, also known as the stomach flu, is caused by a number of different viruses. Its symptoms usually last for two to three days.

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Food Poisoning

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Food poisoning occurs when you consume foods contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Symptoms are usually uncomfortable but not severe.

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The Many Sides of Bacterial Gastroenteritis

Bacterial infections are common causes of gastrointestinal infections. This type of infection is also called "food poisoning" and is often caused by poor hygiene or ingesting foods contaminated with bacteria.

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Giardiasis is an infection in your small intestine. It's caused by a microscopic parasite. Giardiasis spreads through contact with infected people.

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Food Allergy Basics

Food allergies are overblown responses by the immune system to foods that aren't typically harmful - like eggs and peanuts. Continue reading and learn more about food allergies, and how to prevent or treat sever...

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Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerence occurs when a person's small intestine can't break down lactose, an enzyme found in dairy foods. The condition can cause many gastrointestinal symptoms.

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Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease. It occurs when the lining of the large intestine (colon or bowel) and the rectum become inflamed.

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Celiac Disease (Gluten Intolerance)

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder caused by an immune reaction to gluten. Symptoms vary but can include arthritis, fatigue, and abdominal symptoms.

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Malabsorption Syndrome

Malabsorption syndrome occurs when the intestine's ability to absorb important nutrients is compromised. Certain conditions, such as Celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, and dairy allergies may lead to malabsorption.

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Crohn’s Disease

Crohn's disease is a chronic bowel disease that causes severe inflammation of the digestive tract. It is associated with abdominal pain, diarrhea, and may affect your quality of life. Crohn's disease is characterized b...

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Colonic (Colorectal) Polyps

Colonic polyps are growths that appear on the surface of the large intestine. A person may have more than one polyp, and they may be flat or raised, benign or cancerous.

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Fecal Impaction of the Colon

Fecal impaction occurs when waste becomes trapped in the colon, causing abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. It can occur after frequent bouts of diarrhea.

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Colorectal (Colon) Cancer

Colorectal cancer is a cancer that originates in the rectum or colon. Both of these organs are located at the lower portion of your digestive system. The colon is at the end of the large intestine and the rectum is a...

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Amebiasis is a parasitic infection, common in the tropics and caused by contaminated water. Symptoms can be severe and usually start 1-4 weeks after exposure.

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Necrotizing Enterocolitis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Necrotizing enterocolitis is inflammation and death of intestinal tissue. It may involve just the lining or the entire thickness of the intestine. This very dangerous disease is most common in premature infants.

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Salmonella Food Poisoning (Salmonella Enterocolitis)

Salmonella food poisoning is an infection in the small intestine by Salmonella, which is found in animal feces. It's marked by abdominal pain, chills, diarrhea, fever, muscle pain, and vomiting.

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Diverticula are bulging sacs that can appear in the lining of your large intestine. Diverticulitis occurs when these sacs get acutely infected or inflamed.

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Diabetic Neuropathy

Diabetic neuropathy is a common complication of types 1 and 2 diabetes due to uncontrolled high blood sugar levels that result in damage to the nerves. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), between 6...

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PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome)

PMS symptoms start five to 11 days before menstruation and typically go away once menstruation begins. The cause of PMS is unknown.

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The number one symptom of shigellosis, a bacterial infection, is diarrhea. Its symptoms vary in intensity, so you can have this infection and not know it.

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.