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Diarrhea is a symptom -- it is not a disease. It is defined as loose, watery stools that occur more than three times in one day. Diarrhea can be caused by many things, including infections, food intolerance, reactions to medicine, intestinal diseases, and functional bowel disorders. Often, the only necessary treatment involves replacing lost fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration; however, it may sometimes require treatment with antibiotics or diet and lifestyle changes.

What Is Diarrhea?

Diarrhea is one of the most common symptoms that people experience. It is defined as loose, watery stools occurring more than three times in one day. It is not the occasional loose stool or the frequent passing of formed stools.
Anyone can get diarrhea. This common problem can last a day or two, or for months or years, depending on the cause. Most people get better on their own, but diarrhea can be serious for babies (see Infant Diarrhea) and older people if lost fluids are not replaced. Many people throughout the world die from it because of the large volume of water lost and the accompanying loss of electrolytes (sodium and potassium).
The average adult has a bout of diarrhea about four times a year.
(Click Diarrhea in Children or Toddler Diarrhea for more information on diarrhea in these specific age groups.)

Understanding Bowel Movements, Stool, and Diarrhea

If you have diarrhea, there has been a change in your bowel movements -- you pass unusually loose stools. Stool is what is left after your digestive system (stomach, small intestine, and colon) absorbs nutrients and fluids from what you eat and drink. Stool passes out of the body through the rectum. If fluids are not absorbed, or if your digestive system produces extra fluids, stools will be loose and watery. Loose stools are larger than usual. People with diarrhea often have frequent bowel movements and may pass more than a quart of watery stool a day.
Diarrhea can cause dehydration, which means the body lacks enough fluid to function properly. Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children and the elderly, and it must be treated promptly to avoid serious health problems.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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