When should you see a doctor about diarrhea?

When should you see a doctor about diarrhea?

We want to talk about a subject most people don’t like to talk about — diarrhea. What causes it? What can you do about it?

Diarrhea is loose, watery bowel movements more than three times in a day. You may also have cramps, bloating, nausea and an urgent need to have a bowel movement. Diarrhea usually lasts only a day or two. However, it can last longer depending on the cause.

If your child has diarrhea, call your health care provider. Diarrhea can be serious for children.

What causes diarrhea?

The National Institutes of Health says it can come from:

  • Bacteria in contaminated food or water
  • Viruses that cause illnesses such as the flu
  • Parasites – tiny organisms in contaminated food and water
  • Medicines such as antibiotics
  • Problems with digesting certain foods
  • Diseases that affect the stomach, small intestine or colon, such as Crohn’s disease
  • Problems with how the colon functions, caused by disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Sometimes the cause is unknown. If diarrhea goes away in a day or two, knowing the cause usually isn’t necessary.

How can you treat it?

  • Drink plenty of clear liquids such as water to help you stay hydrated. You also need to replace salts and minerals your body loses.
  • Adults can also drink salty broths, fruit juices, sports drinks and sodas without caffeine.
  • Children can drink water and rehydration solutions that contain salts and minerals.
  • Eat soft, bland foods such as bananas, plain rice, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers, cooked carrots and baked chicken without the skin or fat.

Avoid caffeinated drinks such as coffee and colas, high-fat and greasy foods, sweets and high-fiber foods such as citrus fruits. They can make diarrhea worse. Once the diarrhea stops, you can go back to your regular foods.

An over-the-counter medicine might help adults with diarrhea. Consider loperamide or bismuth subsalicylate. Do not use these products if you have bloody diarrhea. Check with a health care provider before giving to children.

Some medical conditions and infections (bacterial or parasitic) can become worse when using these medications. They can stop your body from getting rid of the cause of diarrhea.

When should I see a doctor?

If you have signs of dehydration despite drinking plenty of fluids, contact your health care provider. Dehydration can be serious for children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems.

See your health care provider if you have:

  • Signs of dehydration
  • Diarrhea for more than two days
  • Severe pain in your abdomen or rectum
  • A fever of 102 degrees or higher
  • Stools containing blood or pus
  • Stools that are black and tarry.

Contact your health care provider if you have a concern about diarrhea, especially if a child has the condition. Otherwise, with some simple measures and a couple of day’s time, the condition should pass, and you’ll be back to normal.

Dr. Razieh Hadian Jazi is a family medicine physician at Aurora Health Center in Milwaukee, Wis.

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One Comment

  1. I am interested in Diarrhea and have read your article. I believe my occasional diarrhea is caused by food such as beans and chili. My question is how long does it take for diarrhea present itself. Would the diarrhea pains come in 4 hours or longer? Usually overnight for me. When I have diarrhea I wonder what caused it and how long since I ate something that would cause it so I can avoid that food or blame it on some restaurant serving. I have had a colonoscopy recently and all is well.

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About the Author

Dr. Razieh Hadian Jazi
Dr. Razieh Hadian Jazi

Razieh Hadian Jazi, MD is a Family Medicine Physician at Aurora Health Center in Milwaukee, WI.