bathroom toilet

When to see a doctor for diarrhea

In Online Doctor by Dr. Clinton Osborn

A typical case of diarrhea usually goes away on its own. There are times when it may be ongoing and require medical treatment. When experiencing loose stools, staying hydrated becomes difficult. Dehydration, when gone untreated, can become life-threatening. This is especially true for small children and older adults. It can be challenging to tell when you or your child’s diarrhea needs medical attention or what may have caused the watery stools in the first place. Could it be a virus or bacteria? Could there be an underlying condition? We have put together a list of answers to these common confusions to help you figure it out.

Diarrhea in small children

Infants and small children are at risk for severe complications from dehydration. When diarrhea strikes, it is essential to know when to call the pediatrician. Times to call a doctor or seek immediate medical attention are:

  • When the child has not wet a diaper or urinated after 3 hours.
  • The child is voiding regularly, but diarrhea persists for more than 24 hours or a fever over 102 degrees.
  • The child cries without tears, has a dry mouth, or excessive thirst.
  • If bloody or black stools are present.
  • The child is excessively sleepy, non-responsive, or overly irritable.
  • Has poor skin turgor (when the skin is lightly pinched, it does not flatten back down but appears to remain pinched) or has sunken eyes, cheeks, or abdomen.

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Diarrhea in adults

Adults, but specifically older adults, are at risk for dehydration complications. Times to call a doctor or seek medical attention are:

  • The adult is experiencing severe thirst with little to no urination or dark-colored urine.
  • Diarrhea is lasting longer than 48 hours, or a fever over 102 degrees.
  • If the adult is experiencing severe fatigue, weakness, or lightheadedness.
  • If the adult is having bloody or black stools or severe abdominal or rectal pain.

Are you experiencing dehydration and need to speak to a doctor? Contact the doctors at GuruMD today!

woman taking medication

Common Causes of Diarrhea


Ingestion of certain types of medications can lead to the unpleasant side effect of diarrhea. One of the most well-known drugs to cause this is the antibiotic. While they go to work fighting off the harmful bacteria in your body that is causing your illness, they also can fight off the good bacteria that live in the intestines. When this happens, watery stools are the result. 

Parasites and Bacteria

When you consume food or water contaminated with bacteria or parasites, diarrhea is the usual result. Contamination of the bacteria Clostridium difficile may occur as a hospital-acquired infection. Other bacteria or parasites may cause illness when dining in other countries where food and drinks are not acquired, cared for, or prepared in the same manner as to where you live. Before traveling, you can check The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for any travel alerts that may apply to your trip.


Viruses such as the Rotavirus in children and COVID-19 are two of many that can cause diarrhea and gastrointestinal discomfort. You can prevent the spread of viruses by practicing good handwashing techniques; wash often, work up a soapy lather for at least 20 seconds when washing, and use hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.

Artificial Sweeteners and Fructose

The sweeteners added to sugar-free products, like candies and gum, can cause diarrhea. Also, the natural sugars found in honey and some fruits can be difficult to digest for some people, consumed from the source, or added as a sweetener to other food and drinks, resulting in loose stools.

Lactose Intolerance

People who are intolerant of the sugar in milk may have diarrhea after ingesting dairy products containing lactose, such as milk, some coffee creamers, cheese, etc. 


Abdominal surgeries, such as gall bladder removal or other surgical procedures involving the digestive system, may cause diarrhea.

Related: How Long Does it Take for Antibiotics to Work?

Conditions with Chronic Diarrhea

Nocturnal Diarrhea

Watery bowel movements that happen during the night, often waking you up, can be troublesome and alarming. Sometimes this can last for several days resulting from a viral or bacterial infection and require anti-diarrheal medication or antibiotics. Other times it is referred to as “chronic” and can last for several months. If you suffer from the latter issue, it could indicate a more serious underlying illness. 

Some illnesses that can be a cause of chronic nocturnal diarrhea are:

  • Inflammatory bowel diseases such as Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s disease
  • Diabetes Mellitus; disease in which the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or no insulin, which leaves your body unable to turn the food you have eaten into energy. The medication administered for DM can cause stomach upset and diarrhea.
  • Microscopic Colitis; inflammation of the colon or large intestine.

Treatments that may be recommended by your doctor to manage ongoing diarrhea:

  • Consume bland foods, avoiding greasy foods.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking diluted electrolyte drinks and avoiding alcoholic beverages and caffeine.
  • Taking anti-diarrheal medication 

woman holding toilet paper

Celiac Disease

Celiac Disease is an immune system response in the small intestine to gluten. Exposure to gluten can damage the small intestine’s lining over time and affect its ability to absorb nutrients from the food you eat. 

One of the many side effects of the damage done to the small intestine is diarrhea. If you or your child suspects intolerance to gluten and experiences loose and watery stools for longer than two weeks, is pale, or has a swollen or bloated belly, you should contact your doctor to seek medical treatment, testing, and diagnosis.

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Have questions about diarrhea you are experiencing? Contact a doctor at GuruMD today for the answers you need!