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.
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.
Frequent, long-term diarrhoea can be caused by:
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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:
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:
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.
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:
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.