Diarrhea is a common symptom of various medical conditions. It involves having loose, watery stools three or more times per day. Acute, or short-term, diarrhea usually lasts for a couple of days.

Diarrhea is often a short-lived condition. However, it can persist for some individuals and may result from another underlying condition.

This article will explore the duration and causes of diarrhea, as well as the treatment options. It also discusses some home remedies, potential complications, and when to contact a doctor.

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According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders (NIDDK), doctors classify diarrhea into three categories:

  • acute
  • persistent
  • chronic

Short-term, or acute, diarrhea typically lasts 1 or 2 days and goes away on its own. This type of diarrhea is generally self-limiting, meaning it resolves on its own. A person can manage it with dietary adjustments and plenty of fluids.

Persistent diarrhea lasts between 2 and 4 weeks.

Chronic diarrhea lasts for at least 4 weeks. The symptoms may be constant or come and go.

Diarrhea can develop due to infections, medications, and underlying medical conditions.

Short-term or persistent diarrhea

Short-term diarrhea and persistent diarrhea most often develop as a result of infections, the consumption of contaminated food and drink, or as a side effect of some medications.

Causes of short-term and persistent diarrhea include:

  • Infections: Viral infections, such as norovirus and rotavirus, and bacterial infections, such as E. coli, can cause diarrhea.
  • Food poisoning: Consuming contaminated or spoiled food can lead to food poisoning, which can often result in diarrhea. Bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter are frequently responsible for food-related illnesses. Parasites such as Giardia may also cause diarrhea and are typically contracted through consuming contaminated food or water.
  • Medications: Certain medications, especially antibiotics, can disrupt the balance of intestinal bacteria, leading to diarrhea as a side effect.
  • Stress: Emotional stress and anxiety can affect the digestive system and cause diarrhea in some individuals.

Chronic diarrhea

Chronic diarrhea can develop due to underlying medical conditions, long-term use of medications, and abdominal surgery:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): Conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can lead to chronic diarrhea due to chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): IBS can cause recurrent episodes of diarrhea, often accompanied by abdominal pain and discomfort.
  • Celiac disease: People with celiac disease experience chronic diarrhea when they consume gluten-containing foods, as their immune system reacts to gluten.
  • Malabsorption syndromes: Conditions such as lactose intolerance and fructose intolerance, can lead to chronic diarrhea.
  • Microscopic colitis: Microscopic colitis is an inflammatory condition that affects the colon, causing chronic diarrhea.
  • Surgery: Abdominal surgery can cause chronic diarrhea. A person may develop chronic diarrhea if they have had surgery on their appendix, small or large intestines, pancreas, liver, stomach, gallbladder, or spleen.

Taking antibiotics for a long time can also lead to chronic diarrhea.

Treatment options for short-term, persistent, and long-term diarrhea vary, depending on the cause.

Short-term diarrhea

For short-term diarrhea, treatment primarily focuses on managing symptoms and preventing dehydration. Key steps include:

  • Fluid replacement: A person should drink plenty of clear fluids, such as water, oral rehydration solutions, and clear broths to prevent dehydration.
  • Bland diet: Focus on low fiber starches, soft fruit, steamed or boiled vegetables, and unseasoned, skinless proteins. Examples include white bread, bananas, apple sauce, carrots, potatoes, and chicken.
  • Avoid irritants: A person should avoid spicy, fatty, and dairy-rich foods, as well as caffeine and alcohol, which can worsen diarrhea.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medications: Under the guidance of a healthcare professional, a person can take antidiarrheal medications like loperamide (Imodium).

Chronic and persistent diarrhea

Managing chronic and persistent diarrhea involves addressing the underlying cause. Treatment may include:

  • Medications: Depending on the cause, medications might include anti-inflammatories for IBD or antispasmodics for IBS.
  • Dietary changes: Elimination diets or the avoidance of specific foods can help manage chronic diarrhea associated with conditions like IBS or food intolerances. A doctor will recommend a gluten-free diet for those with celiac disease.
  • Probiotics: Probiotic supplements may be beneficial in some cases, as they can help restore a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
  • Lifestyle modifications: Managing stress and increasing physical activity, if possible, can help manage chronic diarrhea.

Home treatment

When a person has diarrhea, they should aim to get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. OTC pain relievers can also help to relieve discomfort.

Learn more about 5 home remedies to ease diarrhea.

Chronic diarrhea can lead to complications, including dehydration, malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, and impaired quality of life.

Dehydration is the most critical concern, as it can be life threatening without treatment. Signs of dehydration include:

While short-term diarrhea usually resolves on its own, it is important to consult a doctor if a person experience any of the following symptoms:

  • diarrhea that lasts for more than 2 days
  • 6 or more loose stools in a 24-hour period
  • frequent vomiting
  • a high fever, as it may indicate an infection that requires treatment
  • stools that contain blood or mucus or are black in color, which could be a sign of more serious underlying conditions
  • symptoms of dehydration
  • severe rectal or abdominal pain

Infants, toddlers, and young children

The parent or caretaker of an infant, toddler, or young child with diarrhea and any of the following symptoms should seek a doctor’s care right away:

  • diarrhea that lasts longer than 24 hours
  • a fever of 102ºF (38.9ºC) or higher
  • severe rectal or abdominal pain
  • stool that contains blood or mucus
  • stool that is black or tarry
  • symptoms of dehydration

OTC medications to treat acute diarrhea in adults can be dangerous for infants, toddlers, and young children. Talking with a doctor before giving a child over-the-counter medication is important.

Diarrhea is a common digestive symptom with various causes and durations.

Short-term diarrhea lasts for approximately 2 days. A person may have persistent diarrhea if they experience symptoms lasting 2–4 weeks. Chronic diarrhea refers to diarrhea that lasts over 4 weeks.

Short-term diarrhea often results from infections and resolves on its own or with simple dietary changes. Chronic diarrhea is indicative of underlying health conditions, such as IBD, IBS, or food intolerances, and it requires targeted treatment.

Individuals can effectively manage diarrhea and its potential complications by understanding the causes, treatment options, and when to seek medical advice.