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Patient education: Diarrhea in adolescents and adults (The Basics)

Patient education: Diarrhea in adolescents and adults (The Basics)

What is diarrhea? — Diarrhea describes bowel movements that are runny or watery, and happen 3 or more times in a day. Diarrhea is very common. Most adolescents and adults have diarrhea about 4 times a year. Just about everyone has it at some point.

What causes diarrhea? — Diarrhea can be caused by:


Bacteria that live in food or water

Parasites, such as tiny worms that you can catch in some countries

Side effects from some medicines

Problems digesting certain types of food

Diseases that harm the digestive system (figure 1)

Is there anything I can do on my own to get better? — Yes. Here are some things you can try at home:

Drink a lot of liquids that have water, salt, and sugar. Good choices are water mixed with juice, flavored soda, and soup broth. If you are drinking enough fluids, your urine will be light yellow or almost clear.

Try to eat a little food. Good choices are potatoes, noodles, rice, oatmeal, crackers, bananas, soup, and boiled vegetables. Salty foods also help.

Should I see a doctor or nurse? — See your doctor or nurse if:

You have more than 6 runny bowel movements in 24 hours

You have blood in your bowel movements

You have a fever higher than 101.3ºF (38.5ºC) that does not go away after a day

You have severe belly pain

You are 70 or older

Your body has lost too much water. This is called "dehydration." Signs include:

Lots of diarrhea that is very watery

Feeling very tired


Dry mouth or tongue

Muscle cramps



Urine that is very yellow, or not needing to urinate for more than 5 hours

Will I need tests? — Many people do not need to have tests. But it's possible that your doctor will do tests to check if you are dehydrated or to figure out what is causing your diarrhea. Your doctor might do:

Blood tests

Tests on a sample of your bowel movements

How is diarrhea treated? — That depends on what is causing your diarrhea. You might not need any treatment. If you do, your doctor might recommend:

Fluids through an "IV" – An IV is a thin tube that goes into your vein. People with a lot of diarrhea might need IV fluids to treat or prevent dehydration.

Stopping some of your medicines

Changing the foods you eat

Antibiotics – These medicines treat bacterial infections. Most people do not need antibiotics, even if they have a bacterial infection. If you are very sick with fever and blood in your bowel movements, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics to help you get better faster.

Medicines that ease diarrhea – These medicines include loperamide (brand name: Imodium), diphenoxylate-atropine (brand name: Lomotil), and bismuth subsalicylate (brand names: Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate). You should not take loperamide or diphenoxylate-atropine if you have a fever or blood in your bowel movements. Also, taking too much loperamide has led to serious heart problems in some people. If you have health problems or already take other medicines, talk to your doctor or nurse before trying loperamide. For all of these medicines, it's important to not take more than the label tells you to.

Can diarrhea be prevented? — You can reduce your chances of getting and spreading diarrhea by:

Washing your hands after changing diapers, cooking, eating, going to the bathroom, taking out the trash, touching animals, and blowing your nose.

Staying home from work or school until you feel better.

Paying attention to food safety. Tips include:

Not drinking unpasteurized milk or foods made with it

Washing fruits and vegetables well before eating them

Keeping the refrigerator colder than 40ºF and the freezer below 0ºF

Cooking meat and seafood until well done

Cooking eggs until the yolk is firm

Washing hands, knives, and cutting boards after they touch raw food

For more tips on food safety, see the table (table 1).

More on this topic

Patient education: Diarrhea in children (The Basics)
Patient education: Nausea and vomiting in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Constipation in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: High-fiber diet (The Basics)
Patient education: Viral gastroenteritis in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Microscopic colitis (The Basics)
Patient education: Campylobacter infection (The Basics)

Patient education: Acute diarrhea in adults (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Foodborne illness (food poisoning) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Acute diarrhea in children (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Chronic diarrhea in adults (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jan 01, 2023.
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