Frequent Bowel Movements: What You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed By Danielle Hildreth, CPT
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Frequent bowel movements can result from various causes. Some may include infections, allergies, or chronic inflammatory disorders. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, changes in stool color or consistency, dehydration, and more. Treatment for frequent bowel movements depends on the cause. You may be able to prevent frequent bowel movements by adjusting your diet and addressing any underlying health conditions.

Read on to learn more about the causes, treatments, and prevention methods for frequent bowel movements.

What is considered ‘frequent’ for bowel movements?

A roll of toilet paper with the shadow of a hand reaching for it
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Precise criteria for frequent bowel movements do not exist. Having frequent bowel movements means that you are having more bowel movements than usual for you.

Bowel habits vary from person to person. This means the frequency, volume, and consistency of bowel movements can be different for each person. According to researchers, many people have a bowel movement 1–3 times a day.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases considers fewer than three bowel movements per week to be constipation, while diarrhea occurs when bowel movements consist of loose, watery stool three or more times daily.

What are the causes of frequent bowel movements?

Various conditions can cause frequent bowel movements. They may also occur due to certain foods or medications.

Digestive tract causes of frequent bowel movements

Frequent bowel movements may be due to digestive tract conditions, including:

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 requires evaluation in an emergency setting. These conditions may include cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects digestion, or pancreatitis.

Certain cancers, like colon cancer, can also cause changes in your bowel habits.

What other symptoms might occur with frequent bowel movements?

Frequent bowel movements may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying condition. Symptoms that affect the digestive tract may also cause symptoms in other parts of the body.

Digestive symptoms that may occur along with frequent bowel movements

Frequent bowel movements may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive tract, including:

  • abdominal pain, cramping, swelling, distension, or bloating
  • atypically foul-smelling stools
  • changes in stool color or consistency
  • diarrhea
  • fecal incontinence, or difficulty controlling stools
  • gas
  • nausea with or without vomiting
  • painful bowel movements
  • urgent need to pass stool

Other symptoms that may occur along with frequent bowel movements

Frequent bowel movements may also accompany symptoms that relate to other body systems, including:

How do doctors diagnose frequent bowel movements?

To diagnose your condition, your doctor may ask you several questions about your frequent bowel movements, including:

  • When did you first notice an increase in the frequency of your bowel movements?
  • Have you seen changes in the color or consistency of your stool?
  • Have you seen any blood, mucus, oil, or pus in your stool?
  • Did you recently eat or drink anything unusual for you?
  • Is it possible that you ate spoiled food?
  • Do you have symptoms more frequently when you eat certain types of foods?
  • Did you travel recently?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications do you take?

In some cases, reviewing your food or medication intake may help you identify the cause of frequent bowel movements. Tell your doctor if you have added something new to your diet, started a new medication, or tend to have frequent bowel movements after eating specific foods.

If you have traveled recently and believe that you ate contaminated food, you may have food poisoning or traveler’s diarrhea.

If you have had long-term difficulties with frequent bowel movements — particularly oily, bulky, unusually foul-smelling, or bloody stool — you may have an inflammatory condition of the digestive tract.

Tests

Doctors can use certain tests to narrow down the cause of frequent bowel movements. For example, they may request a stool sample for analysis. Stool analysis can identify atypical substances like blood or pus in your stool, as well as bacteria causing an infection.

Colonic and anal manometry can help doctors assess how well colon and anus muscles work. In some cases, a colonoscopy or another invasive procedure may be necessary to visually examine the lower parts of your digestive tract.

What are the treatments for frequent bowel movements?

Treatment for frequent bowel movements depends on the underlying cause. Some cases may resolve on their own. However, if they persist or if you experience severe symptoms, medical treatment may be necessary.

For underlying bacterial infections, doctors may recommend antibiotics. Chronic conditions like IBD may require a combination of medications and surgery to manage symptoms.

People with food allergies or sensitivities may need to adjust their diets to avoid certain triggers. Rehydration therapy may also be necessary for people experiencing severe or chronic diarrhea.

What are the potential complications of frequent bowel movements?

Because frequent bowel movements can result from serious conditions, getting treatment can prevent complications and permanent damage. Once doctors identify the underlying cause, follow their treatment plan to reduce the risk of potential complications, such as:

  • anemia
  • malnutrition due to vomiting, diarrhea, or a decreased desire to eat
  • cancer or infection spread

In addition, diarrhea increases the risk of dehydration, which can have significant complications. Symptoms of severe dehydration require immediate medical care, including:

Can you prevent frequent bowel movements?

You may be able to prevent frequent bowel movements by addressing any underlying health conditions. Avoiding trigger foods and eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fiber may also be beneficial.

Your doctor can help you determine the best way to prevent frequent bowel movements in your individual situation.

When should you see a doctor about frequent bowel movements?

If your frequent bowel movements persist, worsen or cause you concern, contact your doctor.

In some cases, frequent bowel movements can link with conditions that require emergency treatment. Get immediate medical care if you have any of the following serious symptoms:

  • bloody stool, which may be red, black, or tarry in texture
  • change in level of consciousness or alertness
  • altered mental status or sudden behavior change
  • fever higher than 101°F (38°C)
  • no urine production
  • pus in the stool
  • rapid heart rate
  • severe rectal or abdominal pain
  • rectal bleeding or vomiting blood

Other frequently asked questions

These are a few other common questions about bowel movements. Danielle Hildreth, RN, CPT, reviewed the answers.

What are the signs of bowel problems?

Changes in the frequency, consistency, or volume of your bowel movements may indicate bowel problems. Additional symptoms can include abdominal pain, gas, or atypical substances in your stool, such as blood or pus.

How does a doctor diagnose IBS?

Doctors may diagnose IBS through a combination of blood, stool, or breath tests. They may also need to perform a colonoscopy or upper gastrointestinal endoscopy.

What causes explosive diarrhea?

Explosive diarrhea may result from factors like bacterial or viral infections. Chronic conditions like IBS can also contribute.

Summary

Many different conditions can cause frequent bowel movements. Some may be mild, while others may be more severe and require medical treatment.

Contact your doctor if you experience frequent bowel movements. They can help you identify the cause and determine the appropriate treatment.

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Medical Reviewer: Danielle Hildreth, CPT
Last Review Date: 2022 Nov 2
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