What is diarrhea?

Diarrhoea (also spelt diarrhea) – loose, watery stools occurring more than three times in one day – is a common problem that usually lasts a day or two and goes away on its own without any special treatment.
However, persistent diarrhoea can be a sign of other problems.


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Diarrhea can be described as either acute or chronic.

Acute diarrhoea usually starts suddenly and can last up to two weeks.
Chronic diarrhoea continues for a longer period of time, usually more than two weeks. Chronic diarrhoea can be a sign of an inflammatory bowel condition, for example Crohn’s disease, or a chronic bowel infection.

Acute diarrhoea is common and affects nearly everyone at some point. It can be caused by a virus or bacterial infection and should go away within a few days. Everyone is different so it might last longer for some people more than others.

A common cause of diarrhoea in both children and adults is gastroenteritis, which is an infection of the bowel.
In adults, diarrhoea caused by gastroenteritis will usually clear up in two to four days when the infection has cleared. If it lasts for more than a two weeks it may be a sign of a more serious condition and should be investigated by your doctor, especially if there is blood or pus in your faeces.

Diarrhoea can cause dehydration, which means the body lacks enough water to function properly. Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children and the elderly, and it must be treated promptly.

Diarrhea itself is not an illness but it is a symptom. Diarrhea symptoms are often mild and clear up quickly but severe diarrhea or chronic diarrhea can be a consequence of illness. Often when people talk about the symptoms of diarrhea they want information about other symptoms that can go along with it.


See also: “Causes of Diarrhea


Diarrhea itself is extremely common and affects most people at least once or twice a year. But people tend to have different ideas about what it is. In fact diarrhea is defined by the World Health Organisation as loose or liquid unformed stools three or more times a day or more than is usual for the individual and weighing in excess of 200g.

There are about 2 billion cases of diarrhoeal disease every year world-wide.
Diarrhoeal disease is the second leading cause of death in children under five years of age and kills about 1.5 million children every year.
Diarrhoeal disease mainly affects children younger than two years of age. Is a leading cause of malnutrition in children under five years of age.