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Diarrhea vs. Loose Stools

Reviewed on 1/23/2020

What Are the Differences and Similarities in Diarrhea vs. Loose Stools?

    
       Man sitting down holding his head and stomach.
     An episode of loose stools is an early sign of diarrhea.

The main difference between loose stools and diarrhea is that:

  • Loose stools describes stool consistency of your bowel movement.
  • Diarrhea usually means loose stools and an increased number of loose stools. 

The similarity between diarrhea versus loose stools is that diarrhea is defined as loose stools that occur three or more times in a day.

What Do Diarrhea and Loose Stools Mean?

Definition of Loose Stool

Loose stool describes stool that is looser or softer than usual. Loose stools may be 

  • watery, 
  • mushy, 
  • formed but soft and holding its shape , or 
  • formed but soft and not holding its shape once it goes into the toilet bowl. 

Depending on your digestive system, this may occur occasionally, in regular intervals, or every day. 

Definition of Diarrhea

Generally, the term diarrhea is used to describe more frequent and/or looser stools than normal three or more times in a day. 

Chronic diarrhea is diarrhea that is constant or lasts from two to four weeks. 

What Causes Diarrhea vs. Loose Stool?

Diarrhea and loose stools can be caused by:

  1. Certain foods 
  2. Caffeine intake
  3. Laxative use
  4. Viruses
  5. Bacteria 
  6. Parasites
  7. Medications
  8. Digestive problems
  9. Digestive diseases
  10. Allergies
  11. Complications from past surgeries
  12. Alcohol use

What Do Changes in the Color or Shape of Diarrhea vs. Loose Stools Mean?

Many things can cause stool to vary in color or shape. Changes in stool color or shape may be caused by:

  1. Vegetables with deep colors, green foods, food dyes can cause color changes
  2. High fat foods
  3. High fiber foods
  4. Foods with gluten
  5. Dairy products
  6. Iron pills
  7. Bismuth-containing medications (such as Pepto-Bismol)
  8. Bleeding in the digestive tract
  9. Hemorrhoids
  10. Tumors
  11. Biliary obstruction
  12. Certain medications
  13. Digestive diseases

What Are the Similarities in the Early and Later Signs and Symptoms of Diarrhea vs. Loose Stools?

An episode of loose stools is an early sign of diarrhea. Loose stools that occur at least three times in a day is considered diarrhea. Symptoms that may accompany diarrhea include: 

When Should You Call a Doctor for Diarrhea or Loose Stools?

See a doctor if you have diarrhea and:

  • It lasts for more than 5 days
  • It is accompanied by vomiting
  • High fever or chills
  • Severe stomach or abdominal pain
  • Stool is bloody or you have "exploding bloody diarrhea"
  • The diarrhea is dark, black, or purple
  • Weight loss
  • If you have recently traveled to an exotic location (traveler’s diarrhea)
  • If your eyes or skin turn yellow (jaundice)
  • If you have symptoms of dehydration: dry mouth, less urination, drowsiness, dizziness
  • It occurs in infants younger than 6 months old

Additional signs of dehydration in babies or toddlers include fewer tears when crying, sunken eyes, fewer wet diapers.

How Are the Causes of Diarrhea vs. Loose Stools Diagnosed?

Loose Stools Diagnosis

A doctor will ask your history and how often you have loose stools to diagnose diarrhea. They may ask:

  • When did symptoms begin?
  • How often do loose stools occur?
  • What you have eaten recently?
  • About the consistency of the stool
  • Is there is blood in the stool?

Diarrhea Diagnosis

A physical exam may be performed, and a stool sample may be taken to help determine the cause of the diarrhea. 

What Are the Treatments for Diarrhea and Loose Stools?

Treatments for diarrhea and loose stools depend on the cause. In many cases, home remedies and diet changes are sufficient and diarrhea will go away on its own with rest, hydration, and a bland diet. If treatment is needed it may include: 

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What Diet Changes Help Stop Diarrhea vs. Loose Stools?

Diet changes can often help cure diarrhea and loose stool. 

  • Stay hydrated. Good choices include liquids with salt and sugar, such as juice and broth. 
  • Eat foods that are easy-to-digest and/or binding, such as:
  • Potatoes
  • Oatmeal
  • Crackers
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Bananas
  • Soups
  • Salty foods (help prevent dehydration)

What Natural Home Remedies or Supplements Get Rid of Diarrhea vs. Loose Stools?

Home remedies for loose stools and diarrhea include:

  • Increase fiber intake
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) anti-diarrheal medicines
  • Avoid food and drinks that are triggers
  • Take probiotics

Can the Causes of Diarrhea and Loose Stools Be Cured or Prevented?

In many cases, diarrhea and loose stools can be cured depending on the cause. If diarrhea and loose stools are caused by:

  • A bacterial infection, antibiotics will cure it
  • Certain foods, avoiding trigger foods will cure it

Can You Prevent Diarrhea and Loose Stools?

Diarrhea and loose stools that are caused by bacteria and viruses can often be prevented by proper hygiene. Wash hands thoroughly after

  • using the bathroom,
  • cooking,
  • eating,
  • taking out the trash,
  • petting animals,
  • changing diapers, and
  • blowing your nose or sneezing. 

Follow food safety guidelines such as

  • washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly,
  • cooking meat and seafood until well done,
  • keeping the refrigerator colder than 40F or 4.4C and the freezer below 0F -17.7C, and
  • washing kitchen surfaces and utensils after they touch raw foods.

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Reviewed on 1/23/2020
References
Common Causes of Diarrhea. International Foundation of Gastrointestinal Disorders. Updated: Oct 02, 2019.
<https://www.iffgd.org/lower-gi-disorders/diarrhea/common-causes.html>

Patient education: Diarrhea in adolescents and adults (The Basics). UpToDate. Updated: Dec 2019.
<https://www.uptodate.com/contents/diarrhea-in-adolescents-and-adults-the-basics>

Diarrhea. Nemours.org. Updated: Aug 01, 2017.
<https://www.nemours.org/patientfamily/khlibrary/articles/diarrhea.html>
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