What causes frequent bowel movements?

A variety of conditions can cause frequent bowel movements. They may also be related to certain foods or medications.

Digestive tract causes of frequent bowel movements

Frequent bowel movements may be caused by conditions of the digestive tract including:

  • Bacterial gastrointestinal infection, such as Salmonella food poisoning, Campylobacter infection, or traveler’s diarrhea
  • Cancer of the digestive tract
  • Celiac disease (severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage)
  • Diverticulitis (inflammation of an abnormal pocket in the colon)
  • Food allergies (allergic reaction to certain foods)
  • Gallbladder disease or stones
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS; digestive discomfort that does not cause intestinal damage or serious disease)
  • Lactose intolerance (inability to digest lactose, the sugar in dairy products)
  • Parasite infections such as Giardia infection
  • Viral gastroenteritis (viral infection of the digestive tract, also called stomach flu or intestinal flu)

Serious or life-threatening causes of frequent bowel movements

In some cases, frequent bowel movements may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Bowel obstruction
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of frequent bowel movements

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your frequent bowel movements including:

  • When did you first notice an increase in the frequency of your bowel movements?
  • Has the color or consistency of your stool changed?
  • Have you noticed any blood, mucus, oil or pus in your stool?
  • Have you recently eaten or drunk anything unusual for you?
  • Is there any possibility you may have eaten spoiled food?
  • Do you have symptoms more frequently when you eat certain types of foods?
  • Have you traveled recently?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of frequent bowel movements?

Because frequent bowel movements can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance due to long-term diarrhea
  • Intestinal obstruction and rupture of the intestinal wall
  • Poor nutrition due to vomiting, diarrhea, or a decreased desire to eat
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
  • Surgery to remove parts of the digestive tract due to obstruction, rupture, serious infection, or malignant condition

References:

Diarrhea. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/diarrhea/. Accessed May 1, 2011.

Diarrhea. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/tools/symptom/534.html. Accessed May 1, 2011.

INTRODUCTION

What are frequent bowel movements?

Bowel habits, including the number of times a person passes stool each day, vary from individual to individual, so precise criteria for frequent bowel movements do not exist. Having frequent bowel movements means that you are having more bowel movements than usual. Often, frequent bowel movements are accompanied by diarrhea, the passage of loosely formed stool. Read more about frequent bowel movementsintroduction

SYMPTOMS

What other symptoms might occur with frequent bowel movements?

Frequent bowel movements may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the digestive tract may also involve other body systems.... Read more about frequent bowel movementssymptoms

Medical Reviewer: All content has been reviewed by board-certified physicians under the direction of Rich Klasco, M.D., FACEP. Last Annual Review Date: May 2, 2011 Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Digestive System


Did You Know?

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common disorders diagnosed by doctors. In fact, it's estimated that as many as 20 percent of adults have symptoms of IBS.