Diarrhoea is a condition that will affect most people at some point in their lives. While it’s rarely anything to worry about, it can be an unpleasant experience and feel uncomfortable until it passes. Most cases of diarrhoea will clear up within a few days to a week.
This article will explain how to identify whether you have diarrhoea. It will also look at the various diarrhoea treatment options to help alleviate symptoms and provide advice on ways to reduce the risk of getting it in the first place.
In this guide:
What is diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea is when your stools become waterier or looser, or when you have to pass stools more frequently than usual. It’s a common condition. Many people experience diarrhoea a few times each year, but the symptoms typically only last a few days.
Diarrhoea is caused by a disturbance to your digestive system's normal absorption of fluids. Essentially, this is where your digestive system works too quickly. This means your gut doesn’t reabsorb enough fluids, so they remain in the gut and cause your stools to become runny.
Acute diarrhoea usually lasts from a few days to a week. Chronic diarrhoea typically persists for more than four weeks. This can be caused by an underlying medical condition, so you should consult a doctor.
Several potential causes of diarrhoea – such as food allergies and over consumption of alcohol – can be avoided. Diarrhoea can also be caused by some medical conditions, ranging from a virus to some types of cancer. People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or certain other conditions may experience diarrhoea more frequently than others.
Symptoms of diarrhoea
Diarrhoea can cause people to need to pass stools more frequently than normal. These stools may also be loose and watery. It’s an unpleasant experience that creates discomfort. You may also experience additional symptoms depending on the cause.
What are the symptoms of diarrhoea?
Some of the most common diarrhoea symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
More serious symptoms of diarrhoea might include:
- A high fever
- Black, tar-like stools
- Blood in the stools
- Severe pain in the abdominal area or rectum
These may indicate something more serious. If you experience any of the above symptoms, you should see your GP. These could be warning signs of an infection, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, or colon cancer.
What are the signs of dehydration?
Excessive loss of fluids through watery stools may also lead to dehydration, which can be serious if not treated.
Signs of dehydration include:
- Dizziness or becoming lightheaded
- Tiredness or lethargy
- Dry mouth and tongue
- Rapid heartbeat
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle cramps
- Sunken eyes.
In children who are suffering from dehydration, you may notice symptoms such as:
- Passing urine less frequently than usual
- Cold extremities (hands and feet)
- Skin that looks pale or mottled
- Looking or feeling increasingly unwell.
Treating your diarrhoea can help to prevent dehydration .
Treatment of diarrhoea
Diarrhoea typically resolves itself within a few days without requiring treatment. Most adults will find their symptoms improve within two to four days. It may take a little longer – between five and seven days – for children. However, there are things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms and reduce your discomfort.
It’s important to stay hydrated while experiencing diarrhoea, as the condition can lead to dehydration if not properly managed. The risk of developing dehydration may be higher if you’re also vomiting.
Take frequent sips of water throughout the day. Adults should also try taking in fluids mixed with sugar and salt, such as water mixed with broth or juice. When treating babies and small children with diarrhoea, avoid giving them fizzy drinks or juice, as this can worsen their symptoms. Give frequent sips of water instead. If your baby is still being breastfed or bottle-fed, continue to feed them as normal.
Your GP may also recommend oral hydration solutions (ORS) if you’re identified as at risk of dehydration. These may also be recommended to treat the dehydration that can occur with diarrhoea. ORS contains nutrients that are lost when dehydrated, including glucose, salt, and other essential minerals. They’re widely available from pharmacies without prescriptions and typically come in individual sachets that can be dissolved in water.
Eat small, light meals if you can
You should try to eat small, light meals of solid food as often as you feel you can. If you have lost your appetite, you don’t need to eat, but you should ensure you take in enough fluids.
Foods that may help alleviate some diarrhoea symptoms include:
- Boiled vegetables
Salty foods should be the most help, while spicy or fatty foods should be avoided.
Children who are not dehydrated can continue to eat their normal diet if they have the appetite for it. However, if they become dehydrated, they shouldn’t eat until they’ve absorbed enough fluids. If they have no appetite, they should be given plenty of fluids instead until their appetite returns.
In some cases, your diarrhoea may be caused by a food intolerance. For example, your GP may recommend avoiding dairy products if they think you could be lactose intolerant. If this is the case, your symptoms should begin to clear once you remove the food from your diet.
Take Imodium diarrhoea tablets
Medicines for diarrhoea are not always necessary, as most cases of diarrhoea will resolve themselves within a few days. However, there are various diarrhoea treatments available both over the counter and on prescription. These can help reduce the symptoms and shorten the length of time it takes to clear up.
One of the most common antidiarrhoeal medicine is Loperamide, which causes few side effects and has been proven effective. It’s the active ingredient in IMODIUM®. Loperamide works by slowing down the movement of your gut muscles, allowing more fluids and nutrients to be absorbed. This in turn makes the stools firmer and should reduce the frequency with which you need to pass them. It can bring the movement of your bowels back to a normal pace and restore the balance within your digestive system – relieving the symptoms and inconvenience of diarrhoea.
It's important to see your GP before using Imodium if the diarrhoea is persistent or severe, or associated with other symptoms, such as:
- Blood in your stool
- Persistent vomiting
- A severe or continuous stomach-ache
- Weight loss
- Signs of dehydration (including drowsiness, passing urine infrequently, and feeling lightheaded or dizzy)
- Dark or black stools.
Treat the underlying cause
If there’s an underlying health condition that’s resulting in diarrhoea, the most effective method of alleviating your symptoms is to treat that cause. Potential underlying causes could include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can often be managed with medications and changes to your diet.
- Coeliac disease can be managed by excluding any foods that contain gluten from your diet, such as bread.
- Inflammatory bowel disease can be treated with anti-inflammatory medications.
- Bile acid malabsorption can be treated with specific medication designed to reduce the build-up of bile in the digestive system.
These conditions will need to be managed by a medical professional, so consult your doctor for further guidance on your treatment options.
When to seek medical help
While most cases of diarrhoea aren’t severe and should resolve themselves within a few days, diarrhoea can also be a symptom of something more serious.
You should seek medical advice if you or your child :
- Have bloody or black diarrhoea or are bleeding from the bottom
- Have severe stomach-ache or pain
- Are experiencing weight loss
- Are showing signs of dehydration
- Have had diarrhoea for more than seven days or have diarrhoea that is very persistent.
How to prevent diarrhoea
There are precautions you can take to help with the prevention of diarrhoea, as well as measures to stop it from spreading.
Hygiene tips to prevent the spread of diarrhoea
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after going to the bathroom.
- Clean and disinfect the toilet after experiencing bouts of diarrhoea, including the seat and handle.
- Avoid sharing towels, face cloths, cutlery, and utensils with others.
- Wash any soiled clothing and bed linen separately at a temperature of at least 60°C degrees.
- Stay off work or school for at least 48 hours after your last bout of diarrhoea.
Food hygiene guidance to avoid diarrhoea caused by food poisoning
- Regularly wash hands, food preparation surfaces and utensils using hot, soapy water.
- Store raw and cooked food separately in the fridge and make sure food is refrigerated properly.
- Cook food thoroughly before eating.
- Don’t eat food that has gone off or is past its use-by date.
Travel tips to prevent catching diarrhoea
Traveller’s diarrhoea can occur when visiting certain countries where standards of public hygiene are low. Practising good personal hygiene and avoiding certain foods and drinks can help reduce the risk of getting diarrhoea during your travels.
- Only drink bottled water and use bottled water for brushing your teeth. Alternatively, boil water you’re unsure about for at least a minute before using.
- Don’t take ice in your drinks, as this is usually made using tap water.
- Avoid eating salads or fruit and vegetables that have damaged skins.
- Avoid foods that may contain raw or undercooked meat, fish, and eggs, or unpasteurised dairy products.
- Ensure all food is cooked before eating.