Diarrhea is characterized by an abnormal increase in the volume, liquidity and frequency of your stools.
While viruses, bacteria and parasites are the most common causes of diarrhea, other factors like digestive disorders and medications can also be the reason behind this illness. Diarrhea is usually associated with other symptoms that may include:1
- Pain in your abdomen
- Abdominal cramps
- Bloody stools
- Lightheadedness or dizziness (from dehydration)
If diarrhea occurs due to viral or bacterial infection, you may experience vomiting, chills and fever as well.2 Blood and mucus may appear in your stool when the illness is caused by bacterial infection.3
Diarrhea typically goes away on its own, lasting only a few hours or days,4 but if it lasts more than two weeks, it is called persistent diarrhea,5 which may be a sign of an underlying condition, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.6
Diarrhea Can Be Very Dangerous
If left untreated, diarrhea can lead to dehydration, a dangerous condition where your water levels are not enough for normal body function.7
Dehydration occurs because your body loses more water and electrolytes (sodium, chloride, potassium and bicarbonate) than it takes in,8 particularly when bouts of frequent, watery stools persist for more than 24 hours.9
You can address dehydration by drinking plenty of clear fluids, such as pure water and bone broths. Coconut water can also be used to treat or prevent dehydration, as it is naturally rich in electrolytes.
Just remember to drink coconut water in moderation because of its sugar content. Make sure to avoid drinks that can worsen your condition, particularly alcoholic, caffeinated and artificially sweetened beverages.10
Be warned, dehydration can become serious, especially in children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems.11 Severe dehydration can cause seizures, the shutdown of your kidneys,12 swelling of your brain (cerebral edema), coma and even death.13
When Do You Need Medical Attention?
In cases of profound dehydration or if you have any of these symptoms, you need to consult your physician immediately:14
- Diarrhea that lasts more than two days
- Dehydration (dry mouth or skin, excessive thirst, severe weakness, dark-colored urine and dizziness)
- Severe abdominal or rectal pain
- Black or bloody stools
- High fever (102 degrees Fahrenheit or 39 degrees Celsius)
In children (especially young children), diarrhea can quickly result in dehydration. Contact your pediatrician if your child’s diarrhea persists for more than 24 hours, or if your baby has any of these symptoms:
✓ Very little or no urine in three hours
✓ High fever (102 degrees Fahrenheit or 39 degrees Celsius)
✓ Bloody or black stools
✓ Dry mouth or crying without tears
✓ Unusual sleepiness, drowsiness or irritability
✓ Sunken eyes, cheeks or abdomen
✓ Skin that doesn’t flatten quickly after you pinch and release it
"Diarrhea can be nothing to worry about, or it can be potentially life-threatening," said Dr. Ian Lustbader, a clinical associate professor of medicine and a gastroenterologist at New York University's Langone Medical Center.15 Prompt treatment is crucial, especially if you or your child already show signs of dehydration.