What are frequent bowel movements?
Frequent bowel movements is a condition in which a person defecates (eliminates waste from the bowel) more often than usual. There is no “normal” number of bowel movements. Many healthcare providers agree that healthy bowel movement frequency can range from three times a day to three times a week. However, your 'normal' pattern may be different from these numbers. To say that a person’s bowel movements have become more frequent is based on an increase in that person’s usual pattern, not on a standard definition that applies to everyone.
The two main bowel movement conditions are constipation (fewer than three bowel movements per week) and diarrhea (more than three movements of loose stools per day).
Who is affected by frequent bowel movements?
Frequent bowel movements occur in both males and females of any age.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes frequent bowel movements?
Some cases of frequent bowel movements last for a short time only and are not a cause for concern. These can be caused by digestive upset from eating spoiled, fatty or spicy food, a food that is not tolerated, or an intestinal “bug” that clears in a day or two.
Other possible causes of frequent bowel movements include an increase in physical exercise, certain medications like antibiotics or metformin, or a change in the diet (more fiber, water, fats or sugars). Bowel movements may return to the usual after the person adapts to these changes or makes modifications to his or her diet.
When the person has other symptoms to go along with the greater number of bowel movements, there may be other causes, including the following:
- Bacterial infection
- C. difficile infection (which can be serious if untreated)
- Viral infection
- Parasitic infection, such as from worms or protozoa
- Diverticulitis (the small pockets along the wall of the colon fill with stagnant fecal material and become inflamed)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (a group of disorders, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, that cause irritation and swelling of the digestive tract)
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
- Celiac disease (an autoimmune disease that causes sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye or barley)
- Cancer of the colon or elsewhere in the digestive tract
- Food allergies
- Gallbladder problems
- Lactose intolerance (the inability to digest lactose, the sugar primarily found in milk and dairy products)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (a disorder of the colon or lower bowel with symptoms that include abdominal pains or cramps)
- Side effects of medications (including antacids, laxatives, stool softeners)
- Foods and beverages, including certain herbs and herbal teas, alcohol and caffeine
- Use of antibiotics, which can upset normal bacteria in the gut
- Bowel obstruction
- Complications of intestinal or abdominal surgery
- Complications of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy
Diagnosis and Tests
How are frequent bowel movements diagnosed?
In cases in which a cause for frequent bowel movements is not known, the doctor will ask you the following:
- The time of your last bowel movement
- How often you urinate
- The consistency of stool (watery or shaped)
- If there is blood around or in the stool
- If you have bleeding from the rectum
- If you are dizzy or have cramps, pain, fever or nausea
- What foods and drinks you consume
- If you have had any recent changes in your weight
- The medications you take
- If and when you have traveled recently
The doctor will conduct a physical examination and may order blood and stool tests, urinalysis and X-rays.
Management and Treatment
How are frequent bowel movements treated?
Mild cases of diarrhea can be treated with an over-the-counter medicine, such as Pepto-Bismol®, Imodium A-D® and Kaopectate®. These are available as liquids or tablets. Follow the instructions on the package.
Note: do not take antidiarrheal medicines if a bacterial infection or parasites are the suspected cause (symptoms include fever or bloody stools). It is important to allow bacteria or parasites to pass through the digestive system.
When should I call my doctor about frequent bowel movements?
Contact your doctor if you have frequent bowel movements and any of the following symptoms:
- Bloody stools or bleeding from the rectum
- Very bad-smelling stools
- Unintended weight loss
- Severe or chronic (long-term) diarrhea
- Acute severe diarrhea after hospitalization or after taking antibiotics
- Painful, swollen or bloated abdomen
- Abdominal cramps
- Painful bowel movements
- Incontinence (an inability to control bowel movements)
- Urgent need to have a bowel movement
- Body aches
- International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Common Causes of Chronic Diarrhea. (https://iffgd.org/lower-gi-disorders/diarrhea/common-causes.html) Accessed 7/15/2020.
- American Academy of Family Physicians. Anti-diarrheal Medicines: OTC Relief for Diarrhea. (https://familydoctor.org/antidiarrheal-medicines-otc-relief-for-diarrhea/amp/) Accessed 7/15/2020.
- National Cancer Institute. Gastrointestinal Complications (PDQ®) – Patient Version. (https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/constipation/GI-complications-pdq) Accessed 7/15/2020.
- American College of Gastroenterology. Diarrheal Diseases – Acute and Chronic. (https://patients.gi.org/topics/diarrhea-acute-and-chronic/) Accessed 7/15/2020.
- Mitsuhashi S, Ballou S, Jiang ZG, et al. Characterizing Normal Bowel Frequency and Consistency in a Representative Sample of Adults in the United States (NHANES). Am J Gastroenterol. 2018;113(1):115-123.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/05/2018.