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Overview

Having diarrhea means passing loose, watery stools three or more times a day. Acute diarrhea is a common problem that usually lasts 1 or 2 days and goes away on its own.

Diarrhea lasting more than 2 days may be a sign of a more serious problem. Chronic diarrhea—diarrhea that lasts at least 4 weeks—may be a symptom of a chronic disease. Chronic diarrhea symptoms may be continual or they may come and go.

Diarrhea of any duration may cause dehydration, which means the body lacks enough fluid and electrolytes to function properly.

What other symptoms accompany diarrhea?
Diarrhea may be accompanied by cramping, abdominal pain, nausea, an urgent need to use the bathroom, or loss of bowel control. Some infections that cause diarrhea can also cause a fever and chills or bloody stools.

Dehydration
Diarrhea can cause dehydration. Loss of electrolytes through dehydration affects the amount of water in the body, muscle activity, and other important functions.

Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems. Dehydration must be treated promptly to avoid serious health problems, such as organ damage, shock or coma.

Signs of dehydration in adults include

  • Thirst
  • Less frequent urination than usual
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Dry skin
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Light-headedness

Signs of dehydration in infants and young children include

  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • No tears when crying
  • No wet diapers for 3 hours or more
  • Sunken eyes, cheeks, or soft spot in the skull
  • High fever
  • Listlessness or irritability

Also, when people are dehydrated, their skin does not flatten back to normal right away after being gently pinched and released.

Anyone with signs of dehydration should see a health care provider immediately. Severe dehydration may require hospitalization.

Although drinking plenty of water is important in preventing dehydration, water does not contain electrolytes. Adults can prevent dehydration by also drinking liquids that contain electrolytes, such as fruit juices, sports drinks, caffeine-free soft drinks, and broths. Children with diarrhea should be given oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte, Naturalyte, Infalyte, and CeraLyte to prevent dehydration.

When should adults with diarrhea see a health care provider?
Adults with any of the following symptoms should see a health care provider:

  • Signs of dehydration
  • Diarrhea for more than 2 days
  • Severe pain in the abdomen or rectum
  • A fever of 102 degrees or higher
  • Stools containing blood or pus
  • Stools that are black and tarry

Diarrhea is not usually harmful, but it can become dangerous or signal a more serious problem.

When should children with diarrhea see a health care provider?
Children with any of the following symptoms should see a health care provider:

  • Signs of dehydration
  • Diarrhea for more than 24 hours
  • A fever of 102 degrees or higher
  • Stools containing blood or pus
  • Stools that are black and tarry

If children have diarrhea, parents or caregivers should not hesitate to call a health care provider for advice. Diarrhea is especially dangerous in newborns and infants, leading to severe dehydration in just a day or two. Children can die from dehydration within a day.