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.
Diarrhoea is often caused by a stomach bug (gastroenteritis) and passes after a few days. Most people have diarrhoea now and then.
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.
Symptoms of dehydration in children can differ from symptoms in adults. In children, common symptoms include:
In adults symptoms of dehydration include:
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 is a common cause of diarrhoea in both children and adults.
A stomach bug could be caused by food poisoning. This occurs when food or drinks are ingested that are contaminated with harmful microorganisms, including:
Food poisoning is quite common if you’re visiting a developing country due to contaminated food or drinks — this is known as travellers’ diarrhoea.
Other causes of acute diarrhoea include:
Frequent, long-term diarrhoea can be caused by:
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Usually, acute diarrhoea will pass in a week and without needing to see a GP. However, you should make sure that you remain at home for at least 48 hours after your last episode of diarrhoea. This will help prevent the spread of any infection that was causing your diarrhoea.
If your child has diarrhoea, you should contact your GP urgently if they have any of the following symptoms:
You should also contact your GP if you, or your child, have:
Other situations when you should contact your GP include if your sleep or your child’s sleep is being disrupted by having diarrhoea at night and if you or your child have recently been treated in a hospital or taken antibiotics.
You should also see your GP if you are experiencing symptoms of diarrhoea and meet any of the following criteria:
Your GP will examine your stomach and may suggest treatment for diarrhoea, vomiting and/or dehydration. They may ask what and where you’ve eaten, if you’ve been abroad and what your stools look like. They may also ask if you have:
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, particularly if you have a weakened immune system, recently travelled abroad, been treated in a hospital or taken antibiotics. Other symptoms that may need a stool sample to be collected include:
Your GP may also recommend other tests, including:
If necessary, your GP will refer you to a gastroenterologist (a doctor specialising in the stomach and digestion) for diagnosis and treatment of the underlying cause of your 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 can recommend oral rehydration sachets, particularly if you are frail or elderly. These sachets are dissolved in water and replace lost salt, glucose and other minerals.
To ease diarrhoea symptoms, try taking it easy for a few days and:
If your baby has diarrhoea and they are not fully weaned, continue feeding them breast milk or formula milk as normal. If your child has diarrhoea, avoid giving them fruit juice or fizzy drinks as these can worsen their diarrhoea.
If your diarrhoea continues or is very severe, your GP may suggest anti-diarrhoeal medication or, very occasionally, prescribe antibiotics. However, in most cases, medication is not needed and is usually not suitable for children. 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 doctor will provide the appropriate treatment:
Diarrhoea can lead to several complications, including:
The most common cause of diarrhoea is an infection. Practising good personal hygiene can, therefore, reduce your risk of catching diarrhoea and of reinfection. Make sure you:
Food hygiene is also important to prevent diarrhoea. Make sure you:
To prevent travellers' diarrhoea, be aware of whether you're travelling to a country where public hygiene standards are low. If so, make sure you avoid:
How can I stop diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea usually clears up without any treatment but you may experience dehydration. It is, therefore, important to drink lots of fluids, such as water, diluted squash and soup. Avoid sugary and carbonated drinks, as well as spicy, fried or rich foods. Also, make sure you wash your hands regularly to help prevent reinfection — infection with a virus or bacteria is the most common cause of diarrhoea. If your diarrhoea is severe or keeps returning, see your GP for treatment.
How long should diarrhoea last in adults?
Diarrhoea in adults usually stops in 5-7 days without any treatment. If your diarrhoea persists, you experience symptoms of dehydration (confusion, lightheadedness, a racing heartbeat and darkly-coloured urine), or have been vomiting for more than two days, see your GP.
Frequent, long-term diarrhoea (chronic diarrhoea) can last for several weeks at a time. It can be a sign of an underlying condition and you should, therefore, see your GP.
What is the main cause of diarrhoea?
The most common cause of diarrhoea is an infection with harmful microorganisms. This includes viruses, such as norovirus or rotavirus, bacteria, such as campylobacter and E. coli, and parasites, such as Giardia.
When should I be concerned about diarrhoea?
If your diarrhoea is severe or occurs frequently (chronic diarrhoea), you should see your GP. You should see your GP if you:
Experience loose stools for seven days or more, very dark loose stools, diarrhoea with blood, or bowel incontinence
Become severely dehydrated
Experience a very painful stomach or anal pain
Unintentionally lose a lot of weight
Have been vomiting and can’t keep fluids down
Have a fever
What is watery diarrhoea a sign of?
Watery diarrhoea is a sign that you might have a stomach bug (gastroenteritis). This is caused by an infection with a virus, such as norovirus or rotavirus, bacteria, such as campylobacter and E. coli, or a parasite, such as Giardia. Contaminated food and water are common sources of infection.
How long does it take for stool to go back to normal after diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea in adults usually stops in 5-7 days and your stools should return to normal after this. If you continue to have loose stools after seven days, see your GP.
If you have chronic diarrhoea, your stools can remain loose for several weeks and you should see your GP to find out if you have an underlying condition that needs treatment.