Diarrhea Home > Diagnosing Diarrhea

Most cases of diarrhea do not need to be diagnosed -- they get better on their own, often without treatment. If your diarrhea does not get better (or if it is especially severe), it may be necessary to determine what's causing it. Diagnosing diarrhea typically begins with a review of the patient's medical history and a physical exam. Special tests, such as a colonoscopy, can also be helpful in diagnosing diarrhea.

Diagnosing Diarrhea: An Overview

People often self-diagnose the cause of their diarrhea. Right or wrong, people look to blame a certain meal or situation as the cause for their diarrhea: "I must have got food poisoning from that egg salad I ate last night."
But in many situations, the exact cause of diarrhea will never be known. Diarrhea often gets better on its own and does not require a trip to your healthcare provider (see Diarrhea Treatment for what you should be doing until it does improve).
Still, you may wonder:
  • What happens if my diarrhea does not get better?
  • When should I see my healthcare provider?
  • What should I expect?

When Should I See a Doctor for Diarrhea?

Let's begin with when you should see your doctor if you have diarrhea. Although diarrhea is usually not serious, there may be situations when it can become dangerous or signal a more serious problem.
You should see the doctor if any of the following is true:
  • You have had diarrhea for more than three days
  • You have severe pain in the abdomen or rectum
  • You have a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • You see blood in your stool or have black, tarry stools
  • You have signs of dehydration (see below).
If your child has diarrhea, do not hesitate to call the healthcare provider for advice. Diarrhea can be dangerous in children if too much fluid is lost and not replaced quickly.
Take your child to the doctor if any of the following symptoms appear (This is especially important if your child is six months old or younger.):
  • Stools containing blood, mucus, or pus
  • Watery diarrhea with repeated vomiting
  • Temperature above 101.4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • No improvement after 24 hours
  • Signs of dehydration, which may include:
    • No wet diapers for more than three hours
    • Lack of tears when crying
    • Lack of energy
    • Frequent crying or irritability
    • Sunken abdomen, eyes, or cheeks
    • Listlessness or irritability
    • Dry mouth and tongue
    • Skin that does not flatten when pinched and released.
(Click Diarrhea in Children for more information.)
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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