What are loose stools?

Loose stools are bowel movements that appear softer than normal. They can be watery, mushy, or shapeless. In some cases, they may have a strong or foul odor.

There are many possible causes for loose stools. They frequently happen after eating, but they can also occur throughout the day.

Symptoms of loose stools

It’s important to understand the difference between loose stools and diarrhea. If you have diarrhea, you’ll also have loose or watery stools. However, if you have loose stools from time to time, it doesn’t mean you have diarrhea.

In order for loose stools to be considered diarrhea, they have to occur repeatedly. If you have loose stools three or more times per day, then it’s diarrhea.

The most common symptoms of loose stools include:

  • watery stools
  • soft or mushy stools
  • shapeless stools

You may also have other gastrointestinal symptoms including:

  • stomach cramps
  • stomach pain
  • nausea

Chronic loose stools vs. loose stools after eating

You may have either chronic loose stools or loose stools after eating. It’s important to know the difference between these conditions.

A loose stool after eating is usually not a long-term problem and may be a one-off event. However, chronic loose stools can be an issue for weeks. You can tell if you have chronic loose stools by keeping track of how long the symptoms last.

Loose stools after eating can be an indication of food poisoning, lactose intolerance, or infections. You may also have loose stool after eating if you’re taking too much magnesium or have been drinking too much coffee. Certain foods, such as spicy or oily foods, can also create loose stools.

Chronic loose stools are usually caused by other medical conditions. You may have:

  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • celiac disease
  • ulcerative colitis
  • bile acid malabsorption
  • dumping syndrome

What causes loose stools?

There are many potential causes of loose stools.

Food and drinks

Some drinks and food can cause loose stools. Coffee is a common cause because it stimulates the intestinal muscles. Oily and spicy foods are also a problem for some people because they can irritate the stomach. These can also cause loose stools:

  • alcohol
  • fructose
  • sugar alcohols

Food poisoning and infections

Viruses, bacteria, or parasites can cause food poisoning. Loose stools can be the result of inflammation from these infections. You may also have other symptoms such as:

  • nausea
  • fever
  • stomach cramps
  • vomiting

Medications and supplements

Certain medications and supplements can cause loose stools. For example, taking too much magnesium can be a problem. Taking too many laxatives can also affect your bowel movements. In addition, drugs such as antibiotics or chemotherapy can cause loose stools, too.

Lactose intolerance

If you have lactose intolerance, then loose stools may be a problem. People with lactose intolerance don’t produce enough lactase, which is an enzyme necessary to break down dairy.

Irritable bowel syndrome

Loose stools and diarrhea are common if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a disorder that affects the large intestine. You may also experience other symptoms such as:

  • stomach pain
  • gas
  • constipation
  • bloating
  • cramps

Celiac disease

Some people have loose stools because of celiac disease. This is an autoimmune condition that affects the body’s ability to process gluten in food. You may have additional symptoms such as:

  • pain
  • bloating
  • cramping
  • constipation
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • malabsorption

Bile acid malabsorption

Bile acid malabsorption occurs when the body can’t reabsorb the acids from the gallbladder. This leads to irritation and may cause loose stools. Other symptoms of bile acid malabsorption include:

  • bloating
  • cramps
  • pain
  • gas

Dumping syndrome

Dumping syndrome is more common among people who have weight loss surgery or gastric surgery. Food can move too fast through the small intestine, so loose stools happen. The other symptoms are:

  • stomach cramps or pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fast heartbeat
  • sweating
  • feeling flushed
  • dizziness
  • feeling full after eating a small amount

Ulcerative colitis

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a chronic disorder that causes inflammation in the digestive system. Some people with UC experience loose stools. They may also have:

  • pain
  • cramps
  • rectal bleeding
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • fever

Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s disease is another chronic condition that affects the digestive tract. You may have loose stools because of Crohn’s disease. Other symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • stomach pain or cramps
  • lack of appetite
  • gas
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • bloating

Hyperthyroidism

When your thyroid is overactive and makes too much thyroxine hormone, it’s possible to have loose stools. Hyperthyroidism affects metabolism in the body. This condition has other symptoms such as:

  • weight loss
  • thin skin and hair
  • sleep problems
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • fast heartbeat
  • tremors

Complications of loose stools

Dehydration can be a serious problem for people who have watery, loose stools. Make sure you stay hydrated and drink plenty of fluids.

Malnutrition is another possible complication. Malabsorption of important nutrients can be a problem. You may not be getting enough vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients. Talk to your doctor about treating malnutrition.

Loose stools risk factors

Anyone can have loose stools at some point in their lives. This affects both adults and children of all ages.

However, some people are at a higher risk of having loose stools. If you have certain chronic health problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, dumping syndrome, ulcerative colitis, hyperthyroidism, or bile acid malabsorption, then you’re more likely to have loose stools.

See a doctor

In most cases, loose stools are a temporary problem and resolve on their own. However, if your symptoms continue to get worse, and you have chronic loose stools, then it’s time to see a doctor.

See a doctor if you experience:

  • chronic loose stools
  • weight loss
  • bloody diarrhea or stools
  • stools that look black or tar-like
  • high fever
  • severe dehydration
  • fast heart rate
  • confusion
  • dizziness or fainting
  • chills
  • severe stomach pain and cramps that don’t go away

How to treat loose stools

Treatments for loose stools can vary. Your doctor may recommend diet changes and increasing your fiber intake. You may also need to take anti-diarrheal medications.

Immediate treatments to stop loose stools include:

Long-term treatments to stop loose stools include:

  • taking probiotics, which are available at local grocery stores, pharmacies, and online
  • finding and treating medical conditions that cause your loose stools
  • adjusting medications and supplements
  • making dietary changes

The takeaway

Loose stools can happen after eating, or they can be chronic. They usually look soft, mushy, watery, or shapeless. There are many different causes for loose stools.

Talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have and discuss the potential causes and treatment options for loose stools.

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