Frequent Diarrhea and What It Means

When Diarrhea Can Signal a Health Problem

Stomach ache
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While unpleasant, the occasional bout of diarrhea is usually not a big deal. However, if you're experiencing frequent, chronic, or intermittent diarrhea, it may be a sign that you are experiencing a deeper health issue. Find out what can cause diarrhea and when to see the doctor about it.

What Causes Diarrhea? 

Many things can cause diarrhea, from foodborne illness ("food poisoning") and viruses or bacteria that are passed between people, to food allergies and even some medications.

But when diarrhea is frequent, has no apparent cause and becomes a chronic problem, it may signal something more serious, such as colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease.

How Does Diarrhea Happen?

The colon, also known as the large intestine, is responsible for forming solid waste (stool) and passing it out of your body. Your colon absorbs water from the waste as it moves along, making it more solid. Muscles in the colon move the stool along to the rectum and anus for passage out of the body. The further along in your colon the waste goes, the less water it contains until it forms a solid stool. When something disrupts this process (too little water is absorbed or the solid waste passes too quickly through your large intestine), diarrhea can result.

When Diarrhea Can Signal Something Serious

Having diarrhea without any other symptoms usually doesn't mean you have colon cancer.

However, if you have diarrhea accompanied by other possible symptoms of colon cancer, such as blood in your stools, pain, or bloating, you may have something more serious may be going on with your body.

Regardless of any accompanying symptoms, long-term diarrhea should not be ignored. Colon cancer is a disease that is highly curable when found early, with long-term survival rates well over 90%.

Unfortunately, if the cancer is more advanced, and has spread beyond the colon, survival rates drop dramatically. Err on the side of caution and don't wait to see your doctor.

Testing to Determine the Cause of Diarrhea

Your doctor may ask for a stool sample from you, so that he can check for infections due to bacteria, viruses, or parasites. A screening exam such as a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy may be scheduled as well. If you are nervous about getting screened, you can educate yourself so you know what to expect so you're prepared for your screening test.

When to See Your Doctor About Diarrhea

You should see your doctor about the diarrhea you're experiencing if:

  • Your diarrhea has lasted for more than two weeks (either intermittently or present the entire time)
  • You see blood in or on your stool
  • You have persistent cramps or severe pain
  • You are vomiting
  • You experience alternating constipation and diarrhea
  • You have unexplained weight loss (losing weight when you are not trying)

Read More: How to Prevent and Treat Diarrhea at Home


American Cancer Society. Colon Cancer.

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