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Chronic Diarrhea

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Mar 5, 2023.

What is chronic diarrhea?

Diarrhea is chronic when it lasts more than 4 weeks. You may have 3 or more episodes of diarrhea each day.

What causes chronic diarrhea?

  • Infections caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites
  • Trouble digesting food, such as lactose, gluten, or sorbitol
  • Irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, or Crohns disease
  • A lack of enzymes that help digest foods or an overgrowth of bacteria in your small intestines
  • Chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, or a tumor in your digestive system
  • A thyroid disorder, such as hyperthyroidism
  • An immune system disorder, such as AIDS
  • Medicines such as laxatives, NSAIDs, antibiotics, metformin, or digoxin
  • Surgery or procedures on your stomach, liver, or bowels

What signs and symptoms may happen with chronic diarrhea?

  • Abdominal tenderness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Urgent need to have a bowel movement, or loss of bowel control
  • Weight loss
  • Anal irritation and inflammation

How is chronic diarrhea diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and ask you about your symptoms. Tell him or her if you have noticed symptoms after you eat certain foods. Tell your healthcare provider if you have travelled recently or been around others with the same symptoms. You may need the following tests:

  • Blood tests may show infection. They will also give information about your overall health.
  • A bowel movement sample may be sent to a lab to help find the germ that is causing your diarrhea.
  • An x-ray may be taken to check for problems in your digestive tract, such as a tumor.
  • An endoscopy is a procedure to examine the inside of your esophagus, stomach, and small intestine. A flexible tube with a small light and camera on the end is used. Samples of your esophagus, stomach, or small intestine may be taken and tested for causes of diarrhea.
  • A colonoscopy is a procedure to examine the inside of your colon (large intestine). A flexible tube with a small light and camera on the end is used. Samples of your colon may be taken and tested for causes of diarrhea.

How is chronic diarrhea treated?

Treatment will depend on the condition causing your chronic diarrhea. Medicines may be given to treat an infection or stop the diarrhea. Medicines that are causing diarrhea may be stopped or changed. You may need to change your diet and avoid certain foods.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What can I do to manage my symptoms?

  • Drink more liquids to replace body fluids lost through diarrhea. You may also need to drink an oral rehydration solution (ORS). An ORS has the right amounts of sugar, salt, and minerals in water to replace body fluids. ORS can be found at most grocery stores or pharmacies. Ask how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you. Do not drink liquids with caffeine or alcohol. These can increase your risk for dehydration.
  • Do not drink or eat foods that may make your symptoms worse. These include milk and dairy products, greasy and fatty foods, spicy foods, caffeine, and alcohol. Keep a food diary to see if your symptoms are caused by certain foods. Bring this to your follow-up visits.
  • Eat foods that are easy to digest. These include bananas, boiled potatoes, cooked carrots, cooked chicken, plain rice, and toast. You can also try yogurt and applesauce.
  • Wash your hands often. Germs on your hands can get into your mouth and cause diarrhea. Use soap and water. Use an alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available. Wash your hands after you use the bathroom, change a child's diaper, or sneeze. Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your skin, mouth, and tongue are dry, and you feel very thirsty.
  • You have blood or pus in your bowel movement.
  • You have trouble eating, drinking, or keeping food down.
  • You have severe abdominal pain.
  • You feel lightheaded, weak, or you faint.
  • Your heart beats faster than normal or you have trouble breathing.
  • You are confused or cannot think clearly.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have new symptoms.
  • Your symptoms do not improve, or they get worse.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.