Diarrhea refers to loose, liquid stools. It can be mild or severe and last from days to weeks. It all depends on the underlying cause.
In addition to watery bowel movements, symptoms of diarrhea may include:
- urgency to defecate
- frequently passing stools (at least three times a day)
- cramping in the abdomen
- abdominal pain
- poor control of bowel movements
You might also experience fever, dizziness, or vomiting. These symptoms usually occur when an infection is causing diarrhea.
If you have watery stools, you might wonder how long your diarrhea will last. Let’s look at the typical duration of diarrhea, along with home remedies and signs you should see a doctor.
Diarrhea can be acute (short term) or chronic (long term).
Acute diarrhea generally lasts for 1 to 2 days. It can sometimes last up to 2 weeks. However, this type of diarrhea is usually mild and resolves on its own.
Chronic diarrhea lasts for at least 4 weeks. The symptoms might come and go, but it could be a sign of a serious condition.
Diarrhea can have many possible causes. The duration of diarrhea, along with any additional symptoms, depends on the cause.
Acute diarrhea might occur from:
- viral infection (stomach flu)
- bacterial infection
- adverse reaction to medication, like antibiotics
- food allergy
- food intolerance, like fructose or lactose intolerance
- stomach surgery
- traveler’s diarrhea, which bacteria commonly cause
In adults, the most common cause of acute diarrhea is a norovirus infection.
Potential causes of chronic diarrhea include:
Preparing for colonoscopy also causes diarrhea. Since your colon has to be empty for this procedure, you’ll need to take a strong laxative beforehand to flush all the stool out of your colon. Your doctor will prescribe a laxative solution for you to start taking the day before your colonoscopy.
The type of laxative (also known as prep medication) your doctor will prescribe is designed to cause diarrhea without draining your own fluids out of your body. This helps prevent dehydration.
After taking the laxative, you’ll experience frequent, forceful diarrhea for several hours as your colon flushes all the stool from your body. You might also have bloating, abdominal cramps, or nausea.
Your diarrhea should subside shortly before you have your colonoscopy. You may have some gas and discomfort after your colonoscopy, but your bowel movements should return to normal within a day or two.
If you’re concerned about diarrhea during your colonoscopy prep, ask your doctor how to make the process more comfortable.
In many cases, you can treat diarrhea at home. Here’s what you can do if you have acute, uncomplicated diarrhea:
- Drink plenty of water. Diarrhea can lead to dehydration, so it’s important to drink plenty of water. Avoid dairy, alcohol, and caffeinated drinks, which might worsen your symptoms.
- Drink liquid with electrolytes. Your body loses electrolytes when you have diarrhea. Try sipping on sports drinks, coconut water, or salty broth to replenish your body’s electrolyte levels.
- Avoid foods with strong flavors. Spicy, sweet, and highly seasoned foods can make your diarrhea worse. It’s also a good idea to limit foods high in fiber and fat until your diarrhea has cleared up.
- Follow the BRAT diet. The BRAT diet includes bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These bland, starchy foods are gentle on the stomach.
- Antidiarrheal medications. Over-the-counter drugs like loperamide (Imodium, Diamode) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) may help manage your symptoms. However, these medications can worsen bacterial or viral infections, so it’s best to check with your doctor first.
- Take probiotics. Probiotics are “good” bacteria that help restore your gut’s microbial balance. For mild cases of diarrhea, probiotic supplements may help speed up recovery.
- Herbal remedies. If your diarrhea is accompanied with nausea, try home remedies like ginger or peppermint.
Typically, diarrhea starts to get better after about 2 days. If your diarrhea persists, or you notice the following symptoms, seek medical attention right away:
- dehydration, which includes symptoms like:
- little to no urination
- dark urine
- severe abdominal cramps
- severe rectal pain
- bloody, black stools
- fever above 102°F (39°C)
- frequent vomiting
These symptoms could indicate a more serious underlying condition.
You might require medical treatment if your diarrhea doesn’t go away with home remedies or over-the-counter medication. Possible treatments include:
- Antibiotics. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if you have a bacterial infection. You’ll likely need antibiotic therapy if you have a high fever or traveler’s diarrhea. If previously prescribed antibiotics are causing your diarrhea, your doctor might be able to suggest an alternative.
- IV fluids. If you have trouble drinking liquid, your doctor may suggest IV fluids. This will help replenish lost fluids and prevent dehydration.
- Other medications. For chronic conditions, you’ll likely need to visit a specialist, like a gastroenterologist. They’ll prescribe disease-specific medication and provide a long-term plan to manage your symptoms.
Acute diarrhea can last anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks. This form of diarrhea is usually mild and gets better with home remedies.
Chronic diarrhea, on the other hand, may last for 4 weeks or more. It typically indicates an underlying health condition, such as ulcerative colitis or irritable bowel syndrome.
Most cases of short-term diarrhea aren’t a cause of concern. But if your diarrhea doesn’t get better, or if you have signs of dehydration, a fever, bloody stools, or severe pain, it’s important to get medical care as soon as possible.