Causes of Loose Stool and How to Fix It

We all get loose stools or diarrhea from time to time. For some, it happens more often. Finding out what's causing it can help you take steps to keep it from happening again.

Loose stools are extra soft or watery. Depending on the cause, they may also have a stronger smell than normal. If you have three or more loose stools in one day, that's diarrhea. With diarrhea, you may also have cramps and a feeling that you have to go to the bathroom urgently.

This article takes a look at 14 common causes of loose stool. You can also read on for ways to make your bowel movements normal again.

causes of loos stool include food or medications and various health conditions

Verywell / Joshua Seong

Food or Drink

Several types of food and drink can cause loose stools.

Fructose

Fructose is a type of sugar. If you eat or drink a large amount or your body doesn't process it well, it can cause loose stools, diarrhea, gas, or abdominal pain.

To avoid this problem, you may want to limit items with these ingredients:

  • Fruit
  • Some vegetables, such as asparagus, peas, and zucchini
  • Fruit juice
  • Honey
  • Agave syrup
  • Molasses
  • Table sugar
  • Palm or coconut sugar
  • High-fructose corn syrup (used to sweeten processed foods and drinks)

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect. They include:

  • Xylitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Erythritol
  • Other artificial sweeteners

They're often used in sugarless candy and gum, diet drinks, and sugar substitutes, Some are also found naturally in food. Peaches, apples, pears, and prunes all have sorbitol. Sugar alcohols are not well absorbed. When you eat or drink too much, it pulls water from your bloodstream into your intestines. That's what causes diarrhea and loose stools.

To fix the problem, avoid sugar alcohols or limit how much you use. Talk with your healthcare provider about which sweeteners are best for you and how to use them safely.

Coffee

Drinking coffee can spur the muscles in your intestines to contract and relax. That action is called peristalsis. It's how you have a bowel movement.

Coffee boosts those gut movements. Stool then moves more quickly through your bowel. That means there's less time for the body to absorb water from the stool as it passes. The result is a looser stool.

It may help to try darker roasts, like French roast. They have less caffeine than lighter roasts. Skip the milk or cream, excess sugar, and sweeteners like sorbitol. They can create loose stools.

Oily Foods

A greasy meal or a higher fat diet (such as the keto diet) can trigger bowel movements and loose stools in some people.

Food (especially fatty food) in the stomach and small intestine triggers contractions in the colon. This process is called the gastrocolic reflex. It can lead to a bowel movement a short time after eating.

Health conditions like chronic pancreatitis can also cause oily loose stools or diarrhea. It's a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider if it happens often.

Spicy Food

Hot and spicy foods can irritate the intestinal lining and cause loose stools. That's because some compounds in spicy food aren't absorbed by the body. They make their way into your intestines. The good news is that the problem usually resolves itself quickly.

Not everyone who eats spicy food has loose stools. If it happens to you, limit your intake of spicy food. Eating yogurt, rice, or bread may help offset some of the effects.

Alcohol

Ethanol in alcohol speeds up colon contractions. That means waste moves through your body faster. There's less time for the body to absorb water, which can lead to watery stool.

If you notice that drinking affects your stools, see if wine and spirits give you less trouble than beer or malt liquor. Cutting back on your overall intake will also help.

Recap

Fructose, sugar alcohols, coffee, fatty or spicy foods, and alcohol can all affect the way your body processes waste. Limiting them may help resolve the problem of loose stools.

Medication

Certain herbal remedies or medications may lead to loose stools. Some of the medications and supplements include:

If a supplement or treatment is causing loose stools, talk to a healthcare provider. A different formula might be better for you.

Some research suggests probiotics could help with diarrhea from antibiotics. But they aren't right for everyone. People with immune or digestive disorders such as Crohn's disease should speak with a doctor before using them. It's also important to speak with your child's doctor before treating a child with probiotics.

Still, there is some evidence that certain probiotics lower the risk of diarrhea if you're taking antibiotics. A 2016 report published in Nutrition in Clinical Practice analyzed clinical trials of probiotics in people with antibiotic-associated diarrhea (AAD).

The report stated that probiotics lowered the risk of AAD in adults under the age of 65. Another study found that Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG was the most effective strain for AAD.

Chronic Medical Conditions

Some health conditions can cause loose stools.

Lactose Intolerance

Lactose is a natural sugar in dairy products like milk and cheese. Many adults have a low level of lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose. If your body doesn't digest lactose well, eating or drinking dairy products may give you diarrhea.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive disorder. It can cause symptoms like these:

  • Cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

Symptoms vary from person to person. Some people have loose stools or diarrhea. Others have constipation or both.

Celiac Disease

Gluten products like bread, pasta, and baked goods are a problem for people with celiac disease. Gluten is a protein that causes an autoimmune reaction in people with celiac disease. The body attacks its own cells as if they were intruders. One of the symptoms can be diarrhea or loose stools.

The condition can cause:

  • Low energy
  • Weight loss
  • Problems with growth or development

If left untreated, it can damage the intestinal lining. When that happens, it can be harder to diagnose celiac disease.

Dumping Syndrome

People who have had abdominal surgery can sometimes develop dumping syndrome afterward. That's when food moves too quickly from the stomach into the small intestine.

Surgery on these organs can lead to long-lasting diarrhea:

  • Intestines
  • Gallbladder
  • Appendix
  • Pancreas
  • Stomach
  • Liver

Other Chronic Health Conditions

Loose stools go hand in hand with these conditions:

If you have diarrhea that doesn't go away, see a healthcare provider. Many of these conditions can be treated or managed.

Stomach Flu

The stomach flu can cause symptoms like these:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Cramps
  • Fever
  • Headache

This condition is also known as viral gastroenteritis. It's highly contagious and often caused by viruses such as:

  • Norovirus
  • Rotavirus
  • Adenovirus

Symptoms often start one to three days after you've been infected. They can be mild or severe.

Eating bland foods such as bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast may help. Young people, older adults, and people with damaged immune systems can become dehydrated. Keep a close eye on them and make sure they get enough fluid.

Food Poisoning

This condition is also called bacterial gastroenteritis. It's caused by eating food that's contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella or E.coli. This can happen when food hasn't been cooked properly or has been stored too long at room temperature.

The result is inflammation in your stomach and intestines. Symptoms can include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Nausea

For mild cases, staying hydrated and eating potassium-rich foods may help. If your symptoms are severe, you may need treatment.

Recap

Loose stool is a symptom of many health conditions. If you have lactose intolerance, IBS, celiac disease, infection, flu, or food poisoning, it could be affecting your bowel habits. Surgery can also change your stool.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Sometimes, a loose stool is because of something you ate. Things often return to normal within two to three days.

Some people get loose stools more often, due to diet changes or a health condition. You should consult your healthcare provider if your symptoms don't resolve quickly or come back often.

Emergency Symptoms

See a medical professional right away if you have:


  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Blood or pus in the stool
  • Black or tar-colored stool
  • Chills
  • Vomiting
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting
  • Confusion
  • Dehydration (dry mouth, little or no urine, dark urine)
  • Fever of 102 F or higher
  • Fever that lasts longer than a few days
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Weight loss

You should also call your healthcare provider if you:

  • Are an older adult
  • Were recently hospitalized
  • Are pregnant
  • Have a compromised immune system
  • Take steroids, transplant medications, or TNF-alpha inhibitors such as infliximab or etanercept

It may feel awkward to talk about loose stools. Your healthcare provider is there to help. Talking about your symptoms may be the first step toward relieving them.

Summary

A loose stool is one that's softer or more like liquid than normal. Having three or more loose stools in a day means you have diarrhea.

Loose stools and diarrhea can be a temporary problem. That's especially true if they were caused by something you ate or a medication you took. They can also be caused by illness, infection, or a long-term health condition.

If your symptoms don't get better in a few days, check with a healthcare provider to find the exact cause. Some of the conditions that cause loose stools can be serious, but many can be treated successfully.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between diarrhea and loose stools?

    The terms loose stool and diarrhea are often used interchangeably, but there is a slight difference. Loose stools are bowel movements that are extra soft or watery. If you have three or more loose stools in one day it is known as diarrhea. 

  • Is it normal to have loose stools?

    Yes. Everyone has loose stools on occasion. Some people experience loose stools daily. If you have more than three episodes of loose stools in a day, it is known as diarrhea.

    Diarrhea is a common symptom of viral gastroenteritis, also known as the stomach flu. Chronic diarrhea can indicate a food intolerance or a more serious medical condition.

    If you experience three or more loose bowel movements daily for three or more consecutive days, call your healthcare provider.

  • When should I be concerned about loose stools?

    In most cases, loose stools are nothing to be concerned about. However, having several bouts of diarrhea can lead to dehydration. See your healthcare provider if you have diarrhea that lasts more than three days or is accompanied by:

    • Bloody or black tar-like stool
    • Chills
    • Confusion
    • Dehydration
    • Dizziness, fainting, and lightheadedness 
    • Fever of 102 degrees F or higher, or lasts longer than three days
    • Rapid heart rate
    • Vomiting 
    • Weight loss
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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  8. Agamennone, V., Krul, C.A.M., Rijkers, G. et al. A practical guide for probiotics applied to the case of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in The NetherlandsBMC Gastroenterol 2018;18(103). doi:10.1186/s12876-018-0831-x

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Additional Reading
  • Su G, Ko C, Bercik, P, ET al. AGA Clinical Practice Guidelines on the Role of Probiotics in the Management of Gastrointestinal Disorders. Gastroenterology. doi:https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2020.05.059