Watery diarrhea can result from infections, medications, or chronic conditions. Treatments may include drinking plenty of water, avoiding foods that make it worse, and taking medications to treat diarrhea or an underlying condition.

Most cases of diarrhea in adults are not serious and resolve on their own in a few days. Home care can help with avoiding dehydration. However, persistent or recurring diarrhea could indicate another problem.

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

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, such as:


Infections are among the most common causes of diarrhea. They can occur due to:

  • 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 cause diarrhea. 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 sweeteners, such as sorbitol and xylitol, can have a laxative effect. These sugar alcohols are sometimes present in sugar-free products such as chewing gum, soda, and sugar-free candy. If a person consumes a lot of these sweeteners, they may find it induces diarrhea.

Some people also have difficulty digesting certain sugars, such as fructose and lactose. Fructose is present in fruits and honey, while lactose is present in dairy products.

Medication use

Drug-induced diarrhea is the medical term for watery stools that occur as a side effect of a particular medication.

Many medications can cause diarrhea, including but not limited to:

Digestive disorders

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


Sometimes, surgery on the stomach or gallbladder may cause postoperative 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. It may help to:

  • Get some rest: Resting may help the body to fight any infection that may be present.
  • Keep 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.
  • Continue eating: If possible, keep eating solid foods. For children with diarrhea, provide age-appropriate foods, breast milk, or formula.
  • Avoid certain foods and drinks: Certain foods may make diarrhea worse. Try avoiding the following foods until the symptoms have resolved:
    • dairy products
    • fried or fatty foods
    • spicy foods
    • alcohol
    • caffeine
    • fruits such as apples and peaches
    • foods containing sweeteners or sugar alcohols

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 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.
  • Antidiarrhea drugs: In some cases, a doctor may recommend antidiarrheal drugs. These drugs may not be suitable for people who have an infection, though. Many over-the-counter diarrhea medications are also not suitable for children.
  • 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 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.


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
  • symptoms of nutrient deficiencies

Many cases of diarrhea are preventable if people take the appropriate precautions.

Washing your hands

Washing the hands thoroughly and regularly reduces the risk of a person getting an infection that can cause diarrhea. Handwashing is especially important:

  • before preparing or eating food
  • after using the restroom
  • after 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.

Practice food hygiene

Food poisoning 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

Take precautions when traveling

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

  • Check for travel warnings in the destination country before leaving.
  • Avoid raw fruits and vegetables, unless it is possible to wash them in clean water or peel them.
  • Only drink factory-sealed bottled drinks.
  • Use bottled water for brushing the teeth.
  • Do not consume tap water or have ice in drinks.
  • Eat well-cooked foods, especially meat, seafood, and dairy produce.

Receive vaccinations

A person can receive vaccinations for several infections that can cause diarrhea.

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 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 contact a doctor if diarrhea does not improve in 2 days. Parents or caregivers should contact a doctor if a baby or young child has diarrhea for more than 24 hours, or if:

  • the diarrhea is severe or frequent
  • a baby has vomited more than 3 times in 24 hours
  • the child has stopped drinking fluids while ill
  • the child is under 12 months old and has any worrying symptoms

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

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

Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department if a person with diarrhea has:

  • a stiff neck
  • severe headache or stomach ache
  • difficulty staying awake

Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about diarrhea.

Why am I having watery diarrhea every 10 minutes?

One of the most common causes for watery diarrhea is an infection. Many infections can cause acute, or short-term, diarrhea. Until the infection has passed, a person may feel frequent urgency to use the bathroom.

How long does watery diarrhea last?

Most cases of diarrhea in adults last a few days to a week.

What causes sudden diarrhea with no other symptoms?

Infections, certain medications, digestive conditions, and food intolerances could all potentially cause sudden diarrhea with no other symptoms. If this happens often, a person should speak with a doctor.

Most people who have watery diarrhea will recover within a few days with home care or medical treatment. Most cases of adult diarrhea resolve within 7 days.

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

Some people develop chronic diarrhea that persists for a longer period of time. This could indicate an underlying medical condition that requires diagnosis and treatment. Treating the cause should help to ease the symptoms and improve the person’s quality of life.