Experiencing diarrhea at one or more points in your life is common and normal. There are many causes of diarrhea, some more serious than others. Sometimes the symptoms will just last for a few hours, and sometimes symptoms can last a few days. The most common causes of short-term and persistent diarrhea are viral and bacterial infections, travelers’ diarrhea (eating food or drinking water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites, often in developing countries), and side effects of medications.
Monitoring all the symptoms of diarrhea can help you determine what may be the underlying cause, whether it’s a short bout of food poisoning or a sign of a more chronic condition such as irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis.
Diarrhea can become dangerous and even potentially life-threatening if it leads to severe dehydration. Diarrhea may also signal a more serious problem with the intestinal tract such as colon cancer. If the diarrhea and its associated symptoms lasts a long time or becomes more severe, contact your doctor.
Some symptoms of diarrhea:
Loose, watery stools: This is the most common symptom of diarrhea. The stools may be any color. The diarrhea may appear green in color, because stool passes through the intestines faster than usual and isn’t digested properly. Seeing bloody or red stools suggests intestinal bleeding and could be a sign of a more severe infection or condition that a doctor should diagnose. If you see thick, tarry black stools, there may be significant bleeding in the stomach or upper portions of the intestine and that is not usually caused by short-term infections. The loose stools are often accompanied by a few or many of the symptoms listed below.
If you have loose and watery stools more than three times a day and you’re not drinking enough fluids, you could easily become dehydrated. That can cause serious complications if it’s not treated. Stay conscious of the liquids you’re consuming when you have diarrhea.
Common associated symptoms
Fever: A low-grade fever is a sign that your body is fighting an infection, so you may have a bacterial infection. If you have a high-grade fever, above 102 degrees for a long period of time, you may have a more severe illness than acute diarrhea.
Stomach cramps: Stomach cramps and diarrhea are common gastrointestinal symptoms that can affect anyone at any time and usually do not indicate a serious underlying problem. Severe stomach cramps and diarrhea that last for a few days can be a sign of a bacterial or viral infection, or stomach flu. Persistent bad stomach cramps and diarrhea may indicate chronic digestive problems such as Crohn’s disease.
Bloating: Bloating is typically caused by trapped air in the abdomen and intestinal tract, produced as a result of the introduction of a parasite, bacteria or virus into the gastrointestinal system. Some individuals experience diarrhea and bloating due to food intolerance or allergy, or a natural reaction to substances in certain food such as beans, leafy vegetables, or soda. Making dietary changes can often help relieve this kind of diarrhea and bloating.
Nausea: Nausea, or the feeling of abdominal discomfort including an urge to vomit, can often be accompanied by other gastrointestinal symptoms including diarrhea. These two symptoms are a common occurrence for most people and usually go away on their own within one to three days. There are some potentially serious causes of nausea and diarrhea, and if they happen frequently or do not go away on their own, you should talk to your doctor. Common causes of these two symptoms happening together include a viral infection, migraines, and appendicitis.
Stomach pain: Diarrhea is most often associated with severe pain in the abdominal region, between the chest and the pelvis. The pain and go away and come back. Less serious causes of stomach pain and diarrhea include food poisoning, indigestion, or the viral stomach flu. Frequent, constant, or severe pain may indicate there is something serious going on. If it is accompanied by bloody loose stool, see a doctor right away.
Feeling like you need to go the bathroom: Loose stool is often accompanied by the feeling that you need to use the bathroom–immediately. This is caused by severe cramping in the digestive tract.
More serious symptoms
There are other symptoms associated with diarrhea that indicate something more serious is going on and you may need more urgent medical attention. They include:
Diarrhea lasts more than two days: Diarrhea dehydrates the body, and often you cannot replenish the fluids as fast as you are losing them. If you’re experiencing severe diarrhea for more than a few days, especially if you cannot also keep any food or beverages down, you should go to the emergency room. It is easy to get severely dehydrated and then have more serious medical issues to deal with besides diarrhea. Symptoms of dehydration include dry mouth, loose skin in older people, sleepiness or dry eye in children, and more.
Fever higher than 102: This is a sign your body is having trouble fighting off a serious infection, and at-home methods of treating a fever aren’t working. High fevers in children are especially worrisome and should be treated by a doctor right away.
Bloody bowel movements: Having bloody diarrhea is usually an indicator of a more serious issue going on, from Crohn’s disease to ulcerative colitis to an E. coli infection to colon cancer. Go to your doctor to get more diagnostic tests done to determine the true cause.