Diarrhea describes bowel movements (stools) that are loose and watery. It is very common and usually not serious. Many people will have diarrhea once or twice each year. It typically lasts two to three days and can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. Some people often have diarrhea as part of irritable bowel syndrome or other chronic diseases of the large intestine.
The most common cause of diarrhea is a virus that infects the gut. The infection usually lasts for two days and is sometimes called “intestinal flu” or “stomach flu.” Diarrhea may also be caused by:
• Infection by bacteria (the cause of most types of food poisoning)
• Infections by other organisms
• Eating foods that upset the digestive system
• Allergies to certain foods
• Radiation therapy
• Diseases of the intestines (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis)
• Malabsorption (where the body is unable to adequately absorb certain nutrients from the diet)
• Some cancers
• Laxative abuse
• Alcohol abuse
• Digestive tract surgery
• Competitive running
Diarrhea may also follow constipation, especially for people who have irritable bowel syndrome.
Symptoms of diarrhea can be broken down into uncomplicated (or non-serious) diarrhea and complicated diarrhea. Complicated diarrhea may be a sign of a more serious illness.
• Abdominal bloating or cramps
• Thin or loose stools
• Watery stool
• Sense of urgency to have a bowel movement
• Nausea and vomiting
• Blood, mucus, or undigested food in the stool
• Weight loss
Contact your doctor if you have prolonged diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, or a fever that lasts more than 24 hours. Also see your doctor promptly if vomiting prevents you from drinking liquids to replace lost fluids.
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