Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea (US spelling - diarrhea) is a condition that affects everyone at one time or another. Diarrhoea (the word is derived from the ancient Greek word for 'flowing through' and coined by Hippocrates) technically describes where you have loose, unformed and watery stools (poo) more than three times in a day.

It is categorised as either 'acute' or 'chronic'. Acute diarrhoea is normally a sudden onset and can affect you for up to 14 days. It is normally caused by an infection (bacterial or viral), such as gastroenteritis or food poisoning, and generally passes after a few days, but may last longer. 

Chronic diarrhoea is where the condition lasts longer than 14 days and this may be caused by a chronic infection of the bowel or other condition, such as Crohn's Disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) or Coeliac Disease. Chronic diarrhoea may also be a symptom of some cancers, such as bowel cancer.

As well as the common causes outlined above, diarrhoea can also be caused by some parasites (generally limited to certain countries), some medicines which have diarrhoea as a known side effect, and for certain individuals, difficulty digesting certain types of food, especially diary foods.

The normal symptoms of diarrhoea are...

  • Abdominal pain or cramps
  • Urgent need to go to the toilet
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

In most cases a bout of diarrhoea should not last longer than a few days. If it lasts longer, or if you have any of the following symptoms, you should seek urgent medical advice...

  • Blood, pus or mucus in the stools
  • Black diarrhoea
  • Vomiting repeatedly
  • A temperature over 38C
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • If you have recently finished a course of antibiotics
  • If you are over 70 years of age

Also if you are showing signs of dehydration you should also seek urgent medical attention. The signs of dehydration are...

  • A lot of diarrhoea that is very watery
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Very thirsty
  • Inability to urinate, yellow or brown urine or no urination in 5 hours
  • A dry mouth/tongue
  • Muscle cramps
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion

Diarrhoea in babies and young children
Diarrhoea can be especially serious in babies and young children, as they can become rapidly dehydrated.

Treatment Options

At Home
The most important thing to do is to prevent dehydration, so plenty of fluid intake will reverse or prevent dehydration. Oral rehydration drinks containing sugar and/or salt help the body to replace lost fluid and minerals. Also it is a good idea to eat a little bit of food even if you don't feel like it. Salty foods and 'bland' foods such as potatoes, rice and noodles are the best options.

At The Doctors
The doctor may need to conduct various tests to determine the cause of the diarrhoea. These tests may include blood and urine tests and stool tests. Depending on the outcome of the tests, treatment may include antibiotics and/or medications that ease the diarrhoea itself such as Imodium or Pepto-Bismol.

Prevention of diarrhoea
The best way to prevent contracting diarrhoea caused by infection is to observe simple sanitary and health guidelines such as...

Washing your hands after cooking, eating, or using the toilet, handling food scraps, touching animals and blowing your nose.
•    Staying away from work/school if you are ill
•    Not consuming unpasteurized milk (or foods made from it)
•    Thoroughly washing fruits/vegetables before eating
•    Making sure your fridge is colder than 4C and the freezer below -18C
•    Ensuring meat/seafood is well cooked before eating
•    Cooking eggs until the yolk is firm
•    Washing hands, knives, and cutting boards after handling raw food