Home |  Video Library | Podcast Library | e-Newsletters | Classes & Events | About Us | Community Blog | University & Colleges 

Contact Us | 843-792-1414
Patients & Visitors Medical Services Maps & Parking Health Library Health Professionals Careers
Online Services
Health Library
Health Topics A to Z
Clinical Trials & Research
Tests & Procedures
Lab Tests & Results
Health Assessment Tools
Treatment Options
Symptom Checker
How to Use the Symtom Checker
Adult Symptoms
Child Symptoms
When to Call the Doctor
Health e-Newsletters
Podcast Library
Video Library
Health Library
Bookmark Page icon Bookmark | Print this page icon | E-mail icon
Adult Symptoms > Abdomen (GI) Symptoms > Diarrhea


  • Diarrhea is the sudden increase in the frequency and looseness of BMs (bowel movements, stools)
  • Mild diarrhea is the passage of a few loose or mushy BMs
  • Severe diarrhea is the passage of many watery BMs

General Information

  • The majority of adults with diarrhea of less than two weeks duration have an infectious cause for their diarrhea, and in most cases the infection is a virus. Other common causes of acute diarrhea are food poisoning and medications.
  • Maintaining good hydration is the cornerstone of treatment of adults with acute diarrhea.
  • In general, an adult who is alert, feels well, and who is not thirsty or dizzy - is not dehydrated. A couple loose or runny stools do not cause dehydration. Frequent, watery stools can cause dehydration.
  • Antibiotic therapy is only rarely required in the treatment of acute diarrhea. One type of acute diarrhea that requires antibiotic therapy is Traveler's Diarrhea.


See More Appropriate Topic (instead of this one) If


Call 911 Now (you may need an ambulance) If

  • Very weak (can't stand)

Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If

  • You feel weak or very sick
  • Fever of 103° F (39.4° C) or higher
  • Signs of dehydration (e.g., no urine in more than 12 hours, very dry mouth, lightheaded, etc.)
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Constant abdominal pain for more than 2 hours
  • Bloody bowel movements
  • Black bowel movements
  • More than 10 diarrhea stools in the past 24 hours

Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If

  • You think you need to be seen
  • Fever of 101° F (38.3° C) or higher
  • Abdominal pain (Exception: Pain clears with each passage of diarrhea stool)
  • Mucus or pus in stool for greater than 2 days
  • Small amount of blood in the stool (Exception: only on toilet paper. Reason: diarrhea can cause rectal irritation with blood on wiping)
  • Recent antibiotic treatment
  • Have diabetes mellitus or a weakened immune system (e.g., HIV positive, cancer chemotherapy, chronic steroid treatment, splenectomy)
  • Travel to a foreign country in the past month
  • Receiving tube feedings (e.g., nasogastric, g-tube, j-tube)
  • Age greater than 70 years

Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If

  • You have other questions or concerns
  • Diarrhea persists for more than 7 days
  • Diarrhea is a recurrent problem

Self Care at Home If

  • Mild diarrhea and you don't think you need to be seen


  1. Reassurance: In healthy adults, new onset diarrhea is usually caused by a viral infection of the intestines, which you can treat at home. Diarrhea is the body's way of getting rid of the infection. Here are some tips on how to keep ahead of the fluid losses.
  2. Fluids:
    • Drink more fluids, at least 8-10 glasses (8 oz) daily.
    • For example: sports drinks, diluted fruit juices, soft drinks.
    • Supplement this with saltine crackers or soups to make certain that you are getting sufficient fluid and salt to meet your body's needs.
    • Avoid caffeinated beverages (Reason: caffeine is mildly dehydrating).
  3. Nutrition:
    • Maintaining some food intake during episodes of diarrhea is important.
    • Ideal initial foods include boiled starches/cereals (e.g., potatoes, rice, noodles, wheat, oats) with a small amount of salt to taste.
    • Other acceptable foods include: bananas, yogurt, crackers, soup.
    • As your stools return to normal consistency, resume a normal diet.
  4. Diarrhea Medication - Bismuth Subsalicylate (e.g., Kaopectate, PeptoBismol):
    • Helps reduce diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping.
    • Adult dosage: two tablets or two tablespoons by mouth every hour (if diarrhea continues) to a maximum of 8 doses in a 24-hour period.
    • Do not use for more than 2 days
  5. Diarrhea Medication - Imodium AD:
    • Helps reduce diarrhea.
    • Adult dosage: 2 caplets or 4 teaspoonfuls (40 ml) initially by mouth. May take an additional caplet or 2 teaspoonfuls (10 ml) with each subsequent loose BM. Maximum of 4 caplets or 8 teaspoonfuls each day.
    • Do not use if there is a fever greater than 100° F (37.8° C) or if there is blood or mucus in the stools.
    • Do not use for more than 2 days.
    • Read and follow the package instructions carefully.
  6. Expected Course: Viral diarrhea lasts 4-7 days. Always worse on days 1 and 2.
  7. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Signs of dehydration occur (e.g., no urine for more than 12 hours, very dry mouth, lightheaded, etc.)
    • Diarrhea persists over 7 days
    • You become worse

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the "Call Your Doctor" symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Author and Senior Reviewer: David A. Thompson, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 9/15/2011

Last Revised: 8/13/2010

Content Set: Adult HouseCalls Symptom Checker

Copyright 2000-2012. Self Care Decisions LLC; LMS, Inc.

Additional Resources:

 How to use the Adult Health Topics pages
 When to call the doctor
 Reviewers of Clinical Content

Disclaimer: The information contained in these topics is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, it is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before starting any new treatment or discontinuing an existing treatment. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Nothing contained in these topics is intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment.

About This Site   |   Disclaimer   |  Privacy   |   Accessibility   |   Donations   |   Site Map
171 Ashley Avenue, Charleston, SC 29403 1.843.792.1414 | © Medical University of South Carolina
rss feed iconText Messaging iconPodcast Library Follow MUSCHealth on Twitter MUSChealth YouTube Channel