Diarrhoea, which is watery, loose stools more than three times a day, is a very common complaint. It can be unpleasant and inconvenient but, in most cases, there’s no need to worry about diarrhoea.

Summary

Diarrhoea is often caused by a stomach bug (gastroenteritis) and passes after a few days. A sudden (acute) bout of diarrhoea can usually be relieved with rest and fluids. If you, or your child, have frequent, persistent (chronic) diarrhoea, it might be a symptom of an underlying condition.

Causes of diarrhoea

Acute Diarrhoea

You may not be able to pinpoint the exact cause of instant and unexpected diarrhoea. However, diarrhoea – and vomiting – is often your body’s way of getting rid of a stomach bug. This could be food poisoning from bacteria in food or a virus. This is quite common if you’re visiting a developing country due to contaminated food or drinks.

Chronic Diarrhoea

Frequent, long-term diarrhoea can be caused by:

  • Medication side effects – including some antacids, antibiotics, laxatives and cancer drugs
  • Food intolerances – such as lactose intolerance
  • Conditions affecting the digestive system – including Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), coeliac disease, diverticular disease, ulcerative colitis and some cancers
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Migraines

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Getting a diagnosis for diarrhoea

Usually, acute diarrhoea will pass within a week and without needing to see a GP.

If your child has diarrhoea, is showing signs of dehydration and has a high temperature, contact your GP urgently. You should also contact your GP if you, or your child, have:

  • Had loose stools for seven days or more, or have particularly severe diarrhoea
  • Diarrhoea with blood or very dark loose stools
  • Become severely dehydrated – look out for confusion, lightheadedness, a racing heartbeat and darkly-coloured urine
  • Unintentionally lost a lot of weight
  • A very painful stomach or rectum
  • Been vomiting and are unable to keep fluids down

Your GP will examine your stomach and may suggest treatment for diarrhoea and vomiting and/or dehydration. They may ask what and where you’ve eaten and if you’ve been abroad.

If you have chronic diarrhoea, your GP will advise you on how to stop diarrhoea and how to relieve your symptoms. Your GP will also discuss your symptoms with you and examine your stomach. To diagnose or rule out certain conditions, they may ask for a stool sample and recommend other tests, including:

  • Blood tests
  • A rectal examination – this is more likely if you’re over 50
  • A sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy – filming your digestive system using a flexible tube with a camera attached

If necessary, your GP will refer you to a gastroenterologist (specialising in stomach and digestion) for diagnosis and treatment for your diarrhoea’s underlying cause.

Treatments for diarrhoea

Acute diarrhoea usually clears up without treatment. However, it can cause dehydration, which can be serious, especially for babies, young children and the elderly.

To reduce the risk of dehydration, it’s important to take sips of fluids throughout the day until your diarrhoea stops. Your pharmacist will be able to recommend oral rehydration sachets.

To ease diarrhoea symptoms, try taking it easy for a few days and:

  • Drink lots of fluids to maintain hydration levels – water, diluted squash and soup are good choices but avoid sugary and carbonated drinks
  • Eat small, light meals – avoid spicy, fried or rich foods
  • Washing your hands regularly to help prevent passing on the infection or being reinfected
  • Relieving headaches and fever with pain relief such as ibuprofen

If your diarrhoea continues or is very severe, your GP may suggest anti-diarrhoeal medication or, very occasionally, prescribe antibiotics. If you’re severely dehydrated, your GP may recommend inpatient treatment in hospital.

Once the underlying cause of your chronic diarrhoea has been identified, your GP or consultant will provide the appropriate treatment.

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