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What Can Cause Sudden Diarrhea and Can It Be Serious?

About Sudden Diarrhea

Who amongst us is not familiar with the loose and watery stools of diarrhea? While most cases of sudden diarrhea tend to resolve itself, many of us opt for using some over-the-counter (OTC) medications to put an end to the stools faster. Sudden diarrhea is usually not a cause for concern, as long as you keep on replenishing fluids to prevent dehydration.

Chronic diarrhea (1) or recurring bouts of diarrhea can disrupt your life dramatically, but it is also a sign that there is an underlying health condition that needs to be addressed.

Let us look at some of the causes of sudden diarrhea and whether it is a cause of concern or not.

What Can Cause Sudden Diarrhea?

What Can Cause Sudden Diarrhea?

Acute or sudden diarrhea tends to usually resolve on its own within a couple of days, even without really knowing what caused it in the first place. Here are some of the possible causes of sudden diarrhea. (2)

Travelers’ Diarrhea

The most common type of sudden diarrhea is commonly referred to as “travelers’ diarrhea.” It is common knowledge that you should be careful about the water you drink while traveling to certain countries. There are many countries where unsanitary water conditions can expose you to drinking water that is contaminated with parasites such as:

  • Giardia lamblia
  • Cryptosporidium
  • Entamoeba histolytica

It can also expose you to harmful bacteria such as:

Travelers’ diarrhea will typically last for a couple of days. If it lasts longer than three days, you should consider seeing a doctor.

Viral Gastroenteritis

Viral gastroenteritis is also commonly referred to as the stomach flu or stomach bug. However, this is not exactly influenza, and it has nothing to do with the stomach because it affects the intestines. There are many viruses that can cause this, including:

Some of the common symptoms of viral gastroenteritis, apart from diarrhea, include:

Certain Medications

There are also certain types of medications that can cause sudden diarrhea. The most common example being antibiotics that destroy the harmful bacteria in the body, but at the same time, they also end up destroying the good bacteria in our gut. This imbalance between good and bad bacteria can lead to a bout of diarrhea.

Some other medications that cause diarrhea include:

  • Certain drugs that are used in cancer treatment
  • Antacids that contain magnesium
  • Overuse of stool softeners or laxatives

Foods That Cause Diarrhea

Many times if you are allergic to a certain food or you have food sensitivities, it can cause sudden diarrhea. Some of the most common foods that can cause an allergic reaction include eggs, seafood, and soy.

Some other categories of foods can also include:

Artificial sweeteners: Sugar alcohols that are typically added to sugar-free products can lead to diarrhea. These include mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol.

Lactose: People who are lactose intolerant may end up experiencing diarrhea after consuming milk and other milk products.

Gluten: If you have a gluten intolerance or if you have celiac disease, then your body is going to be sensitive to gluten. Gluten is found in foods that contain wheat flour. Consumption of foods containing gluten can trigger diarrhea.

Fructose and High-Fructose Corn Syrup: If you are fructose intolerant, then you might experience diarrhea after consuming foods or soft drinks that contain honey, fruits, or corn syrup.

Too much of caffeinated beverages or alcohol can also cause sudden diarrhea.

Can Sudden Diarrhea Be Serious & When Should You See a Doctor

Even though experiencing diarrhea once in a while is not a pleasant experience, but it is usually not a cause for concern either. However, if you find that your symptoms are becoming serious enough to warrant you to stay home from work, then it might be time to consult a doctor.

If there is an underlying condition causing your diarrhea, then the sooner you get a diagnosis and start the treatment, the better it will be.

You should see a doctor if, apart from severe diarrhea, you experience any of the following symptoms:

Signs of dehydration that includes dark urine, confusion, extreme thirst, dizziness


If you are frequently experiencing diarrhea, and it is becoming chronic (3), then it is essential that you get a proper diagnosis as there could be an underlying medical condition causing frequent diarrhea. You must make sure to tell your doctor all the symptoms you are experiencing, the frequency of these symptoms, and how long they last. Also, tell your doctor about any known medical conditions you have or anybody in your family has, especially if there is a history of gastrointestinal diseases in your family. It is very much possible to manage and treat all types of gastrointestinal conditions today, and it is better to start treatment earlier than later.


  1. Donowitz, M., Kokke, F.T. and Saidi, R., 1995. Evaluation of patients with chronic diarrhea. New England Journal of Medicine, 332(11), pp.725-729.
  2. Nhsinform.scot. (2019). Diarrhoea causes and treatments. [online] Available at: https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/stomach-liver-and-gastrointestinal-tract/diarrhoea [Accessed 7 Nov. 2019].
  3. Uptodate.com. (2019). UpToDate. [online] Available at: https://www.uptodate.com/contents/chronic-diarrhea-in-adults-beyond-the-basics [Accessed 7 Nov. 2019].

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:December 2, 2019

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