Diarrhea, Age 12 and Older

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Diarrhea, Age 12 and Older

Topic Overview

Diarrhea occurs when there is an increase in the number of bowel movements or bowel movements are more watery and loose than normal. When the intestines push stools through the bowel before the water in the stool can be reabsorbed, diarrhea occurs. It can also occur when inflammation of the bowel lining causes excess fluid to leak into the stool. Abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, or a fever may occur along with the diarrhea.

Diarrhea is one of the most commonly occurring health problems affecting all ages. Most adults will have 4 episodes of diarrhea each year. Diarrhea that comes on suddenly may last up to 14 days.

Diarrhea has many causes.

  • Diarrhea is often caused by stomach flu (gastroenteritis) or food poisoning. Diarrhea is your body's way of quickly clearing viruses, bacteria, or toxins from the digestive tract. Since most cases of diarrhea are viral, they will clear up in a few days with good home treatment. E. coli is a common bacteria that causes diarrhea. E. coli infection is related to improper food preparation.
  • Drinking untreated water or unpasteurized dairy products can cause viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections, such as Giardia lamblia. Giardia lamblia parasite can cause diarrhea that develops 1 to 4 weeks later. These infections can also occur when you use untreated water to brush your teeth, wash your dishes or vegetables, or make ice for drinks.
  • Many prescription and non-prescription medicines can cause diarrhea.
    • Antibiotics may cause mild diarrhea that usually clears up without treatment. A more serious type of diarrhea caused by the bacteria Clostridium difficile (sometimes called C-diff) may occur while taking an antibiotic or shortly after finishing the antibiotic.
    • Laxatives, such as Correctol, Dulcolax, Ex-Lax, or Feen-a-Mint, may cause diarrhea.
  • Using too much of products that contain sorbitol (such as chewing gum) or fructose can cause diarrhea.
  • Some people get diarrhea while travelling (traveller's diarrhea).
  • For some people, emotional stress, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, or food digestion problems (such as lactose intolerance) cause diarrhea.
  • Repeated episodes of diarrhea may be caused by inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Diarrhea may also be caused by malabsorption problems and certain types of cancer.
  • Diarrhea may develop after stomach, bowel, or gallbladder surgery, or after bariatric surgery for obesity.

Many times the exact cause of diarrhea is difficult to determine. Almost everyone has an occasional bout of diarrhea. Although diarrhea is annoying, most cases are not serious and will clear up with home treatment.

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

Home Treatment

Home treatment can help you treat your diarrhea and avoid other related problems, such as dehydration.

  • Take frequent, small sips of water or a rehydration drink and small bites of salty crackers.
    • Try to increase your fluid intake to at least 1 L (1 qt) per hour for 1 to 2 hours or until diarrhea symptoms disappear.
  • Begin eating mild foods the next day or sooner, depending on how you feel.
    • Avoid spicy foods, fruits, alcohol, and caffeine until 48 hours after all symptoms have disappeared.
    • Avoid chewing gum that contains sorbitol.
    • Avoid dairy products for 3 days after symptoms disappear. Milk products may be harder for your body to digest when you have diarrhea.

Non-prescription medicines for diarrhea

If you are pregnant, talk with your doctor before taking any medicines for diarrhea.

Non-prescription medicines may be helpful in treating your diarrhea. Follow these tips when taking a non-prescription medicine for diarrhea:

  • Use non-prescription antidiarrheal medicine if you have diarrhea for longer than 6 hours. Do not use non-prescription antidiarrheal medicines if you have bloody diarrhea, a high fever, or other signs of serious illness.
  • Read and follow all label directions on the non-prescription medicine bottle or box. Be sure to take the recommended dose.
  • Long-term use of non-prescription antidiarrheal medicine is not recommended. To avoid constipation, stop taking antidiarrheal medicines as soon as stools thicken.
  • If your child or teen gets chicken pox or flu, do not treat the symptoms with over-the-counter medicines that contain bismuth subsalicylate (such as Pepto-Bismol). Subsalicylate has been linked to Reye syndrome, a rare but serious illness. If your child has taken this kind of medicine and he or she has changes in behaviour with nausea and vomiting, call your doctor. These symptoms could be an early sign of Reye syndrome.

There are several types of antidiarrheal medicines: those that absorb water and thicken the stool, and those that slow intestinal spasms.

  • Thickening mixtures (such as psyllium) absorb water. This helps bulk up the stool and make it more firm.
  • Antispasmodic antidiarrheals, such as Imodium A-D and Pepto Diarrhea Control, slow intestinal spasms. Some products contain both thickening and antispasmodic ingredients.
  • Probiotics, such as Lactobacillus, are available in either pills or powder. This bacteria occurs naturally in the intestine and may help with digestion. When diarrhea is present, the number of these bacteria is reduced.

General tips

Follow these tips to clean up diarrhea. Protect your hands with gloves while cleaning up. Wash your hands after you are done cleaning up.

Symptoms to Watch For During Home Treatment

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to evaluate your symptoms if any of the following develop during home treatment:

  • Signs of dehydration develop.
  • Severe diarrhea (10 or more loose watery stools in 24 hours) develops.
  • Black or bloody stools develop.
  • A fever develops.
  • Your symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

Food poisoning is a common cause of diarrhea in children and adults. Most cases of food poisoning may be prevented by taking a few precautions when preparing and storing food at home. Perishable foods, such as eggs, meats, poultry, fish, shellfish, milk, and milk products, should be treated with extra care. Also, precautions should be taken if you are pregnant, have an impaired immune system or a chronic illness, or you are preparing foods for other high-risk groups, such as young children or older adults. For more information, see the topic Food Poisoning and Safe Food Handling.

The following steps are recommended to prevent food poisoning:

Contact your provincial department of agriculture about safe home canning and food preparation.

For information on how to prevent traveller's diarrhea, see the topic Traveller's Diarrhea.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • How long have you had diarrhea?
  • How many times per day are you having diarrhea?
  • What does your diarrhea look like? Describe the colour, consistency (watery, mushy), and other characteristics (contains blood or mucus).
  • When was your last episode of diarrhea?
  • Have you recently increased the amount of fibre in your diet (more fresh fruit, vegetables, or other high-fibre foods)?
  • What prescription and non-prescription medicines do you take?
    • Are you taking any new medicines?
    • Did you recently increase the dose of a medicine?
    • Have you taken any antibiotics recently?
    • Did you recently receive an antibiotic while in the hospital?
  • Do you routinely use laxatives or stool softeners?
  • Have you been under an unusual amount of stress at home, work, or both?
  • Does anyone you live with or work with have diarrhea?
  • Did your diarrhea start after eating at a restaurant? Has anyone who ate there with you become ill?
  • Did you drink lake or stream water or untreated well water?
  • Have you recently visited a foreign country or taken a ship cruise?
  • Do you have any risk factors that make you more susceptible to diarrhea, such as irritable bowel syndrome?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Be sure to include any non-prescription medicines you have taken.
  • Do you have other symptoms, such as vomiting, fever, or dehydration?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised June 14, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.