Diarrhea Patient Information Fact Sheet

What is diarrhea?
Diarrhea is the passing of frequent, loose or liquid stools. The number of times a person usually has bowel movements varies greatly; three times a day may be normal for one person, while three times a week may be normal for another. Diarrhea can be acute, starting suddenly and lasting a short time, or chronic, lasting a long time. A doctor should be consulted after a few days if the diarrhea does not abate, or earlier if it is severe and causing dehydration. Consult your doctor sooner if the person affected is elderly or very young (under 2 years).

What are the symptoms of diarrhea?
The main symptom is an increase in the usual number of bowel movements, resulting in frequent, loose or liquid stools. Bowel movements are often preceded by cramping abdominal pain, which eases after the stool is passed. Sometimes there is an accompanying high temperature, and in severe cases there may also be blood or mucus in the stools.

What causes acute diarrhea?
Diarrhea is a symptom of other conditions and is not a disease in itself. It can be caused by a variety of illnesses and conditions, the most common of which is gastroenteritis. Gastroenteritis is usually caused by a viral infection and is passed easily from one person to another. It can also be caused by bacteria in food; when this happens it is often called food poisoning. Some drugs, such as antibiotics, can cause diarrhea as a side effect. Anxiety can also cause diarrhea temporarily. Excess alcohol can cause diarrhea as a result of large volumes of fluid in the bowel.