Diarrhea is the medical term for a watery or loose stool that occurs threee or more times a day. Other symptoms may include stomach cramps and a loss of appetite.

This article outlines the causes of watery diarrhea and the treatment options available.

Severe or persistent diarrhea can cause complications, such as dehydration.

A woman washes her hands after experiencing watery diarrhea.Share on Pinterest
People should seek medical treatment if they experience watery diarrhea for more than a couple of days

There are many potential causes of diarrhea. We outline some common causes below.

Infections

Gastrointestinal infections are the most common cause of diarrhea. The following pathogens can cause such infections.

  • Viruses: People can contract viruses through inhaling infected droplets from another person’s coughs or sneezes. It is also possible to get viruses by touching surfaces that have come into contact with the virus, and then touching the eyes, nose, or mouth. Some viruses that can cause gastrointestinal infections include:
  • Bacteria: Spoiled or unwashed foods or contaminated drinking water can contain bacteria that can cause gastroenteritis. Some examples include:
  • Parasites: The parasites Giardia and Cryptosporidium can cause gastrointestinal infections. People can get parasites through accidental ingestion of human or animal feces or by consuming contaminated food or water.

Difficulty digesting certain sugars and sweeteners

Some people have difficulty digesting certain sugars or artificial sweeteners. Consuming these substances could trigger a bout of watery diarrhea.

The sugars fructose and lactose are common causes of gastrointestinal upset. Fructose is present in fruits and honey, while lactose is present in dairy products.

Artificial sweeteners may also trigger diarrhea in some people. Sorbitol, mannitol, and other artificial sweeteners are common ingredients in chewing gum and sugar-free products.

Medication use

Drug-induced diarrhea is the medical term for a loose, watery stool that occurs as a side effect of a particular medication.

Some medications that can cause diarrhea are prescription only, while others are available over-the-counter (OTC). Some examples include:

Digestive disorders

Chronic watery diarrhea is a symptom of several disorders that affect the digestive tract. Examples include:

Surgery

Sometimes, surgery on the stomach or gallbladder may cause post-operative diarrhea. The diarrhea may be acute or chronic.

People who experience diarrhea following abdominal surgery should notify their doctor.

Many cases of watery diarrhea clear up within a few days of home treatment. The main aims of home treatment are to reduce discomfort and prevent dehydration.

The following home remedies may help to alleviate diarrhea:

  • Getting plenty of rest: Resting helps the body to fight any infection that may be present.
  • Keeping hydrated: To prevent dehydration, drink plenty of water and other clear fluids. Sports drinks and electrolyte drinks are good options for replacing lost electrolytes. Alternatively, people can try Pedialyte and other OTC oral rehydration solutions.
  • Eating easily digestible foods: People should stick to eating easily digestible foods, such as bananas, boiled rice, and toast.
  • Eating smaller meals: The body can have difficulty digesting large meals. Try consuming several smaller meals throughout the day.
  • Avoiding problem foods and drinks: Certain foods can make diarrhea worse. Try avoiding the following foods until the symptoms have resolved:
    • dairy
    • fried or fatty foods
    • spicy foods
    • alcohol
    • caffeine
    • foods that trigger allergies or intolerances, such as those containing fructose, lactose, or artificial sweeteners

If home remedies do not ease diarrhea within a couple of days, a person may need medical treatment. The treatment a person receives will depend on the underlying cause of their diarrhea.

Some potential treatment options for watery diarrhea include:

  • Antibiotics: If a bacterial or parasitic infection is present, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infections.
  • Anti-diarrheal drugs: In some cases, a doctor may recommend anti-diarrheal drugs. However, these drugs may not be suitable for people who have an infection as they can cause the infection to persist.
  • Medication adjustment: In cases of drug-induced diarrhea, a doctor may recommend making changes to a person’s medications. The doctor may suggest lowering the dose of a particular medicine or switching to another medication entirely.
  • Treatment of digestive disorders: People who have an underlying digestive disorder may require one or more of the following treatments:
    • dietary changes
    • lifestyle changes
    • medication
    • surgery
  • Fluid replacement: People who develop dehydration due to severe or chronic diarrhea may need intravenous (IV) fluids.

Watery diarrhea often passes without causing any complications. However, when complications do arise, they can be serious.

We outline some possible complications of diarrhea below.

Dehydration

Diarrhea may cause the body to lose fluids more quickly than it can take them in.

Untreated dehydration can be life threatening. It is especially dangerous for young children and older adults.

Some signs and symptoms of dehydration to look out for include:

In babies and young children, dehydration can also cause a lack of tears when crying. Older adults and children are at particular risk of dehydration, so it is essential to identify the symptoms of dehydration early.

Intestinal malabsorption

Severe or persistent diarrhea episodes can trigger intestinal malabsorption. This is where the intestines are unable to absorb all the nutrients the body needs to function correctly.

Intestinal malabsorption is a particular risk in cases of parasitic infection.

Some possible signs and symptoms of intestinal malabsorption include:

  • appetite changes
  • bloating
  • gas
  • stomach pain
  • weight loss
  • other symptoms of nutrient deficiencies

Many cases of diarrhea are preventable if people take the appropriate precautions. We outline some examples below.

Washing the hands

Washing the hands thoroughly and regularly reduces the risk of infections that can cause diarrhea. Handwashing is especially important in the following situations:

  • before preparing or eating food
  • after using the restroom
  • following contact with someone who is ill

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people should wash their hands frequently in soapy water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are unavailable, a person should use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Practicing good food hygiene

Food poisoning resulting from a bacterial infection is a common cause of watery diarrhea. To reduce the risk of food poisoning, a person should:

  • store foods at the correct temperature
  • wash their hands thoroughly before preparing or eating food
  • keep fresh produce and raw meats separate, and use separate utensils and chopping boards when preparing foods
  • cook meat and seafood thoroughly

Taking precautions when traveling

The risk of food poisoning is higher when traveling to countries with poor sanitation. As such, people should take the following precautions when traveling to such destinations:

  • Eat well-cooked foods, especially meat, seafood, and dairy produce.
  • Avoid raw fruits and vegetables unless it is possible to peel the produce.
  • Drink only bottled water and other drinks in their original bottles.
  • Do not consume tap water or ice, and do not use tap water for brushing teeth. However, boiled tap water is typically safe to drink.
  • Check for travel warnings for disease outbreaks in the destination country.

Receiving vaccinations

A person can receive vaccinations for rotavirus and cholera.

The CDC recommend that infants receive the first dose of the rotavirus vaccine before 15 weeks of age and the second dose before 8 months.

The CDC currently only recommend the cholera vaccine for adults aged 18-64 who are traveling to an area where there is an active cholera outbreak. The vaccine reduces the likelihood of severe diarrhea by 90% at 10 days post-vaccination.

Adults should see a doctor if their diarrhea persists beyond a few days. Parents or caregivers should take babies and young children to see a doctor if their diarrhea persists for 24 hours or more.

People should seek prompt medical care if any of the following accompanies diarrhea:

  • dehydration
  • a fever
  • black, tarry, or bloody stools
  • severe pain in the stomach or rectum
  • weight loss

Most people who have watery diarrhea will recover within a few days following appropriate home care or medical treatment. Most cases of adult diarrhea resolve in 2-4 days, while children typically get better within 5-7 days.

People should seek medical treatment for diarrhea that is severe or persistent or accompanied by other symptoms. Prompt treatment reduces the risk of complications, such as dehydration and intestinal malabsorption.

Some people may develop chronic diarrhea that persists for longer than 2-4 weeks. Chronic diarrhea could indicate an underlying medical condition that requires diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Treating the cause should help to ease the symptoms and improve the person’s quality of life.