Just about everyone gets diarrhea at some point in life. Experts estimate there are about 179 million cases of acute diarrhea in the United States per year.

Most of the time, the loose stools of diarrhea last a few days and go away on their own. But there are times that diarrhea requires a trip to see our emergency physicians here at Clear Creek ER. Diarrhea may be a symptom of another condition that can be treated. Before we talk about when to seek treatment, let’s cover the basics of diarrhea.

What is diarrhea?

Diarrhea is loose, watery stools that happen three or more times a day. It can be acute, meaning that it comes on and goes away quickly. Or it can be chronic or recurring. Acute diarrhea is more common than chronic diarrhea. Both types can cause you to become dehydrated and interfere with your body’s ability to absorb nutrients from the food you eat.

What causes diarrhea?

An underlying problem typically causes diarrhea. Here are a few of the most common causes:

  • Bacteria or parasites from bad food or water
  • Viruses like flu, norovirus, or rotavirus
  • Medicines, such as antibiotics, cancer drugs, and antacids with magnesium
  • Sensitivities to substances in food, like lactose or artificial sweeteners
  • Diseases of the small or large intestines, like Crohn’s disease or colitis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Stomach surgery complications where food moves through the intestines too quickly

There are times when the cause of diarrhea is unknown.

Symptoms of diarrhea

Other symptoms can accompany the watery stools, including:  

  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Urgent need to use the bathroom
  • Loss of bowel control

If a bacteria or virus caused your diarrhea, you might have fever, chills, or bloody stools.

One common side effect of diarrhea is dehydration, which happens when you go to the bathroom so much that your body loses too much fluid. Because of the possibility of dehydration, diarrhea can be dangerous — even life-threatening — especially in children, older adults, or people with weak immune systems.