Diarrhea - what to ask your health care provider - adult
Diarrhea is when you have more than 3 very loose, watery, or unformed bowel movements in 1 day. For many, diarrhea is mild and will pass within a few days. For others, it may last longer. It can make you feel weak and dehydrated. It can also lead to unhealthy weight loss.
A stomach or intestinal illness can cause diarrhea. It can be a side effect of medical treatments, such as antibiotics and some cancer treatments. It may also result from taking some medicines and consuming artificial sweeteners such as those used to sweeten sugar free gum and candies.
Below are questions you may want to ask your health care provider to help you take care of your diarrhea.
Diarrhea - Animation
Diarrhea isn't something most people want to talk about, much less have. Not only can diarrhea be uncomfortable, with gas, bloating, and that mad dash to the toilet, but it's a sign that you're either sick, or you've eaten something that really didn't agree with you. With diarrhea, the stools become loose and watery instead of solid. If you have diarrhea, there's a good chance you picked up a stomach virus. Or, you may have gotten food poisoning from eating food or drinking water that was contaminated with bacteria. A lot of people get sick from tainted food while traveling, because they're not used to the food and water in the foreign country. This is called traveler's diarrhea. Certain diseases that affect your intestines can cause diarrhea, including celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis. If you've taken medications such as antibiotics or laxatives, diarrhea can be an unpleasant side effect. Protect your stomach by giving it healthy bacteria called probiotics. You can find them in yogurt and supplements. Among other things, probiotics help crowd out the bad bacteria that cause diarrhea. To avoid getting sick, wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer so bacteria can't get into your body. And when you travel to areas that may have unclean water, drink only bottled water without ice. Also avoid eating any uncooked fruits or vegetables that don't have a peel. Usually diarrhea goes away by itself pretty quickly, but it can stick around for a few days or even weeks. Loose stools are very watery, and they can dehydrate you pretty quickly. Stay hydrated by drinking at least 8 to 10 glasses of clear liquids a day. Drink one glass every time you have a loose bowel movement. To replace the electrolytes you're also losing with diarrhea, consider an electrolyte drink or rehydration solution. Also you may want to eat soup, pretzels, and other salty foods, as well as bananas and other high-potassium foods. Infants and children are especially likely to get dehydrated from diarrhea, and this can be really dangerous. You can tell your baby is dehydrated because his mouth will be dry, he'll make fewer wet diapers, and he won't produce tears when he cries. To keep your child hydrated, give 2 tablespoons of fluid every 30 to 60 minutes. You can use breast milk, formula, broth, or a solution like B.R.A.T. or Pedialyte, which also comes in a kid-friendly popsicle form. Diarrhea is an unpleasant, but fortunately short-term affliction most of the time. If it does stick around, call your doctor. The doctor will ask questions about your symptoms, where you've been traveling, and what new medicines you've taken or foods you've eaten. Until you're feeling better, drink plenty of fluids so you don't get dehydrated.
Questions you should ask:
- Can I eat dairy foods?
- What foods can make my problem worse?
- Can I have greasy or spicy foods?
- What type of gum or candy should I avoid?
- Can I have caffeine, such as coffee or tea? Fruit juices? Carbonated drinks?
- Which fruits or vegetables are OK to eat?
- Are there foods I can eat so I do not lose too much weight?
- How much water or liquid should I drink during the day? What are the signs that I am not drinking enough water?
- Do any of the medicines, vitamins, herbs, or supplements I take cause diarrhea? Should I stop taking any of them?
- What products can I buy to help with my diarrhea?
- What is the best way to take these products?
- Which ones can I take every day?
- Which ones should I not take every day?
- Can any of these products make my diarrhea worse?
- Should I take psyllium fiber (Metamucil)?
- Does diarrhea mean I have a more serious medical problem?
- When should I call the provider?
Michael M. Phillips, MD, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, The George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
de Leon A. Chronic diarrhea. In: Kellerman RD, Rakel DP, eds. Conn's Current Therapy 2021. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:188-190.
Schiller LR, Sellin JH. Diarrhea. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 16.
Semrad CE. Approach to the patient with diarrhea and malabsorption. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 131.