Diarrhea Symptoms - When to Call the Doctor

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

Read on to find out what diarrhea really is and isn't, which other symptoms often accompany diarrhea and when you should call the doctor.

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. But let’s face it we are not going to get the scales out!

If you have to:

  1. open your bowels every time you eat
  2. you have rectal urgency or a need to open your bowels in a hurry
  3. a feeling that you need to go again and have incomplete evacuation
  4. or fecal incontinence where you soil your underwear

these things alone are not diarrhea but you should contact your doctor if you are having such problems.

The Bristol Stool Chart or Scale is a way of defining the type of stool that you are passing and this can be an aid to healthcare professionals that want to understand your diarrhea symptoms. Stool types 6 and 7 are classified as diarrhea.

Diarrhea Symptoms - Bristol Stool ChartBy Bristol Stool Chart.png: Kyle Thompson derivative work: Jpb1301 [CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.

So what is normal? The healthiest are types 4 and 5.

Associated Diarrhea Symptoms

There are many other symptoms that often accompany this problem:

When to contact your doctor

If your diarrhea symptoms only last for 24-48 hours and you do not have other symptoms then it is not necessary to see a doctor but there are situations where it is important to get medical help. It depends on the symptoms and who is ill.

Red Flag Signs, Symptoms and History

There are certain signs and symptoms of diarrhea which can indicate to your doctor that something more serious may be going on and you may have an underlying health condition. A sign is something which can been seen by you or your doctor and a symptom is something that you feel, although this word is often used in a more general way by many people to describe anything associated with their illness.

If you have any of these red flags with your diarrhea symptoms then you should contact your health care practitioner:

  • Diarrhea with no pain
  • Weight loss but with a normal appetite
  • Blood when you open your bowels. This includes black tarry stools which indicates old blood and is in fact more worrying than fresh blood
  • Chronic diarrhea, especially if you are over the age of 45
  • Your bowel habits have changed in the last 3 months
  • You are very tired, possibly indicating anemia
  • You have a family history of bowel diseases
  • If diarrhea is regularly disturbing your sleep


Babies will deteriorate much faster than children or adults and are at risk as they can easily become dehydrated. Contact your doctor or take your baby to an emergency facility immediately if your baby has had:

  •  Six or more episodes of diarrhea in the last 24 hours
  •  Contact them sooner if your baby is also vomiting  
  •  Is showing signs of dehydration such as a dry diaper(nappy), irritability, drowsiness, pale or mottled skin, cold hands and feet, skin which doesn’t  flatten if pinched and released
  • has other symptoms like a fever or just doesn’t respond as normal


Children should see a doctor sooner than adults if they have the symptoms of diarrhea. Contact your doctor if your child has had:
•    six or more episodes in the last 24 hours
•    very watery stools
•    vomiting at the same time
•    blood
•    fever
•    abdominal pain
•    mild diarrhea that lasts more than a week
•    signs of dehydration


Normally adults do not need to see a doctor if they have uncomplicated diarrhea that lasts 2-4 days and is improving but the elderly and those with other health conditions should see a doctor more quickly. However, there are reasons why medical advice should be sought sooner:

  • If you have recently been in hospital
  • If you have recently been taking antibiotics
  • If you have blood in your stools or you have black tarry stools
  • If you have very watery diarrhea and are at risk of dehydration
  • If your diarrhea is accompanied by vomiting and dehydration symptoms
  • If you are losing weight and you are not dieting
  • If the diarrhea is regularly disturbing your sleep
  • You have a fever
  • You have severe abdominal pain
  • If it has lasted longer than 2 days if it is severe diarrhea or 7 days if it is mild

Everyday thousands of people around the world suffer with diarrhea symptoms which can be distressing or even dangerous but usually they will recover with no ill effects provided they drink plenty of fluids with the right mix of salt and sugar. Please read this article for more information.

When you have diarrhea it is best to stay away from other people as much as possible to avoid passing on any infection like salmonellae.coli or c.diff and so it is best to get advice before going to a medical facility.

When at home if possible do not share a toilet with other people. Wash your hands thoroughly and do not share towels.

How are you feeling?

I have tried to give you some of the facts that you need when you have diarrhea symptoms but I guess that if you are looking at this page then either you or a loved one is suffering.

Diarrhea can make you feel very miserable and even though in most cases it will pass, while you are suffering you can feel terrible.

Obviously some people have chronic diarrhea and this is even more difficult to cope with. I just want you to know that I have suffered with many bouts of diarrhea, acute and chronic and I know how horrible it can be.

The other thing that can cause distress is the embarrassment factor. Having a bowel movement is the most natural thing in the world but most people want to do this in private and sometimes when diarrhea strikes, privacy flies out of the window.

Accidents happen, noises happen, and then we feel bad. Remember this has probably happened to everyone at some time. I do understand however that sometimes we would rather be anywhere else!

The Bristol Stool Tart

Diarrhea Symptoms - Bristol Stool Tart

Recently my daughter who works as an Occupational Therapist in a London hospital made this Bristol Stool Tart for a work function. I include the picture of her cake here to illustrate that although we may be embarrassed by our diarrhea, for many professional people it is something which they take in their stride! The nurses loved it by the way.

Diarrheanurse.com hopes your diarrhea symptoms clear up quickly which in most cases they will but if you have other accompanying symptoms or your diarrhea is not improving then please seek medical advice.

Please browse the Diarrheanurse site for information about the causes of diarrhea.

Dehydration Symptoms - What to Look For

Dehydration is one of the symptoms of diarrhea which can be dangerous if left to go to far. Know what to watch out for and what to do if dehydration strikes.

Go to Dehydration Symptoms - What to Look For

Stomach Flu Symptoms - When Will They Stop?

How long does stomach flu last and how do you know that you have it? Find out here.

Go to Stomach Flu Symptoms - When Will They Stop?

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