What is diarrhea?

Your body processes food and water by absorbing whatever nutrients are needed and eliminating the rest by way of a bowel movement, or stool. Normal stool is solid but soft, and easy to pass through the rectum and anus. Diarrhea is loose, watery stool that is difficult to control and occurs frequently in one day or over several days. It may also be accompanied by gas pain, bloating and other symptoms.

Everyone deals with diarrhea from time to time. Usually it is caused by a stomach “bug” such as viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu) or a bacterial infection such as from food poisoning. The problem often goes away on its own within a day or so.

Causes of diarrhea

Infection is not the only cause of diarrhea. You may also experience watery bowel movements as a result of:

  • Taking chemotherapy drugs
  • Intolerance to certain types of food such as lactose or gluten
  • Taking certain medications such as antibiotics

There is also a wide range of diseases and conditions that cause acute (less than a week), persistent (more than 14 days) and chronic (30 days or more) diarrhea, including:

  • Celiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

When to get medical help for diarrhea

The main cause for alarm with diarrhea is that it quickly depletes the body of salts and minerals that help regulate hydration in your body. Dehydration as a result of diarrhea may cause you to feel faint or dizzy. In children and the elderly as well as in people with weakened immune systems, dehydration can be particularly dangerous.

You may need medical help for diarrhea if you also:

  • Are vomiting blood
  • Are vomiting frequently and it lasts more than 48 hours
  • Have blood in your stool
  • Have severe abdominal pain that doesn’t go away with bowel movement
  • Recently returned from traveling in another country



Main Line Health gastroenterology works to resolve digestive issues and GI conditions. Find the right solution for your digestive conditions at one of our Philadelphia locations.