Symptoms of Diarrhea

In This Article

Diarrhea is a common problem. Even healthy adults and children may have diarrhea a few times a year. In some cases, there might be an obvious reason for the loose stools, such as an allergy or illness. But in many situations, the reason may never be known. Diarrhea that occurs for a few days is usually not a reason to seek treatment from a physician. This is because while it may be uncomfortable and for some, even embarrassing, most of the time diarrhea will go away on its own. But how do you know when you should see a doctor for diarrhea?

Diarrhea that goes on for three or more days without stopping is a reason to talk to a doctor. Loose stools for more than a few days could be caused by something more than a simple virus, a new medication or supplement, or eating foods that are associated with digestive upset. Diarrhea that goes on for some time could be a symptom of one of several different conditions, and so seeing a physician in order to get a diagnosis and get treatment will be important.

Some of the conditions that can cause persistent diarrhea include gastrointestinal infections (such as with a bacteria called Clostridium difficile), celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Diarrhea that is accompanied by blood in the stool or by black or tarry stools is always a reason to seek medical treatment. Over-the-counter diarrhea remedies may be used to treat certain types of diarrhea, but it’s important to check with a doctor before using them—in some cases, they may not be helpful.

Diarrhea symptoms
Verywell / Gary Ferster 

Frequent Symptoms 

Diarrhea might be thought of as fairly descriptive, but there can be several other signs and symptoms that may or may not go along with it. The symptoms will largely depend on the reason for the diarrhea. Viruses, which can cause gastroenteritis that is sometimes also called the “stomach flu,” may be associated with abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, and vomiting. When trying to determine what may have caused diarrhea, especially when talking to a doctor, it may be helpful to know what other symptoms may be related. 

Signs and symptoms that may also be associated with a common bout of diarrhea can include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Fever and/or chills
  • Loose stools (watery consistency) 
  • Nausea
  • Urgent need to have a bowel movement (called tenesmus)
  • Vomiting

Less Common Symptoms

When diarrhea is caused by a virus or a disease or condition, there may be other signs and symptoms that go along with it. Not all of these symptoms will happen in every case. For instance, mucus in the stool tends to be a sign of ulcerative colitis (one form of inflammatory bowel disease) or of irritable bowel syndrome.

Blood in the stool or black or tarry stools, it should be noted, is always a reason to see the doctor. Even if it has happened before, or if it’s thought to be from hemorrhoids, blood in the stool and/or bloody diarrhea should always be looked at by a physician.

Signs and symptoms that may also be associated with diarrhea from a more serious cause can include:

  • Black or tarry stools
  • Blood in the stool
  • High fever (over 102 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Mucus in the stool
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Signs of dehydration

When to See a Doctor or Go to the Hospital

It’s not common to need to seek treatment for diarrhea but there are some instances where it will be necessary to see a doctor about diarrhea. 

Black or Tarry Stools

Stools that look black or like tar could be a sign that blood is coming from higher up in the digestive tract (such as the stomach or the small intestine). This is never considered normal, even when it happens with diarrhea. For that reason, seeing black in the toilet that might be blood is a reason to call a doctor.

It may be necessary to run some tests to see if there is indeed blood in the stool and then to find out where that blood might be coming from in the digestive system.

Blood in the Stool

Blood in the stool is never normal. Bloody stools or bloody diarrhea can happen with digestive diseases such as IBD and also with colorectal cancer. Hemorrhoids are another common reason to see blood in the toilet or on the toilet paper. However, seeing blood in or on the stool is a reason to see a doctor.

Even if the blood has happened before, it is still important to have a physician do an exam and check for hemorrhoids or a fissure (a small tear in the tissue of the anal canal), or a mass in or around the rectum. Red blood in/on the stool is a sign that blood is coming from down lower in the digestive tract.

Diarrhea for Two or More Days

Even with a virus that causes diarrhea, most people start to feel better in a few days and the diarrhea starts to slow down or stop. If after about two days the diarrhea shows no signs of slowing down, it’s time to see a doctor. As long as there are no serious symptoms like dehydration, blood in the stool, or severe pain, making an appointment to see a doctor in their office as soon as possible is advised.

Fever

A fever is a common sign of a viral infection but fevers that go on for more than a few days or are higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit are a reason to see a doctor. Certain bacterial or viral infections can cause a fever. In many cases diarrhea and a fever is not a cause for alarm but when the fever is high, it won’t come down with medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, or it goes on for more than a few days, it is a reason to seek medical attention.

Mucus in the Stool

Mucus in the stool is normal, but it is usually not enough that we can see it in or on the stool or on the toilet paper. Having mucus in the stool that can be seen could be a sign of a digestive disease like ulcerative colitis or of a syndrome like IBS. There are also several other reasons that there could be mucus in the stool. Having mucus in the stool is a reason to call a physician and get an appointment.

Severe Abdominal Pain

Some viruses or other conditions that cause diarrhea might also cause some abdominal pain. But when this pain is severe it could be a reason to see a doctor. If the pain is sudden and severe, it may even be a reason to call 911, especially if there are other signs or symptoms such as vomiting or fainting. Severe abdominal pain could be a sign of several different more serious digestive conditions such as a bowel blockage or ischemic colitis (a lack of blood flow to the large intestine).

If the pain is bad enough that it’s impossible to sit down or find a comfortable position to rest, it is reason to seek medical care right away.

Signs of Dehydration

It’s not common to become dehydrated with a typical bout of uncomplicated diarrhea. Dehydration can cause headache, extreme thirst, a lack of urination or dark urine, dizziness, fatigue, and mental confusion. If a person can not keep fluids down and is really sleepy or seems disoriented, it is a reason to seek medical attention.

Dehydration can be especially dangerous in people who have had surgery to remove the colon, such as to treat colon cancer or IBD. Without a colon, it is easier to become dehydrated when having diarrhea and/or vomiting.

A Word From Verywell

Diarrhea is common and most people will have to deal with it every so often. However, when the diarrhea goes on for a few days, is occurring more frequently than a few times a year, or seems to happen for no reason, it can be time to talk to a physician about it. Discussing a personal issue like diarrhea can be embarrassing, but remembering that physicians are there to help you with these symptoms can make it a bit easier.

While most of the time diarrhea is not serious, it’s important to rule out a disease or condition that could be causing it. Many times diarrhea won’t need testing or treatment, but in the event that these things are needed, being straightforward about all symptoms will help the process go more smoothly. 

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Article Sources

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