Can’t stop going to the toilet? Get expert advice on diagnosing and treating diarrhoea.
If you’re reading this while sitting on the toilet and you’re scared to get off, you probably have diarrhoea. But what exactly is diarrhoea, what causes it, and, most importantly, how can you make it go away?
We look at everything you need to know about stomach bugs including diarrhoea symptoms, causes and treatment options:
What is diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea is the passing of looser or more frequent stools than is normal for you and it occurs when the lining of the large intestine becomes inflamed or irritated. This prevents essential salts and fluids from food in the intestine being absorbed by the body, causing watery poo.
Most people get diarrhoea every now and then and it is usually nothing to worry about. However, diarrhoea can be painful and upsetting and it can take a few days or even a week to clear up. Diarrhoea can be of sudden onset and lasting for less than four weeks (acute) or persistent (chronic).
Symptoms of diarrhoea can range from slightly loose stools with an upset stomach, to longer-term extremely watery stools and cramps. Everyone has a different bowel habit which is normal for them, but diarrhoea is commonly defined as having looser or more frequent stools than is normal for you.
Common diarrhoea symptoms include the following:
- Stomach cramps
- An urgency to go to the toilet to pass loose motions – at least 3 times in 24 hours
- Feeling sick or vomiting
- Feeling hot and having a high temperature
- Loss of appetite
- Flatulence (wind)
❗ Diarrhoea symptoms usually stop within 5 to 7 days. If symptoms persist call your doctor.
Many different things can cause diarrhoea including infection, food poisoning, medication and stress:
Infection and food poisoning
Diarrhoea can be a symptom of an acute bowel infection, often referred to as gastroenteritis. This can be caused by:
- Viral infection:such as norovirus or rotavirus.
- Bacterial infection:such as campylobacter, Clostridium difficile (C. difficile), Escherichia coli (E. coli), salmonella or shigella. All of these cause food poisoning.
- Parasites: such as giardia intestinalis parasite which causes giardiasis, often caused by consuming contaminated food or drink.
Diarrhoea caused by an infection in the bowel usually comes on suddenly and lasts for five to 10 days, which is described as short term or acute diarrhoea. There may be vomiting associated but this tends to settle within the first couple of days.
Diarrhoea can also simply be caused by changes in diet, for example:
- Eating foods with high amounts of the artificial sweetener sorbitol
- Suddenly eating an excess of certain fruits
- Eating rich creamy dishes
- Drinking too much alcohol
Stress and anxiety can cause diarrhoea in some people and may be a major factor in conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. To reduce stress, try our stress-busting techniques.
Some conditions such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome and coeliac disease can all cause persistent or intermittent chronic diarrhoea.
Many medicines, including Antibiotics, Antacids containing magnesium, Orlistat and SSRI antidepressants have the potential to cause diarrhoea. The symptoms will usually reverse on stopping the medication.
Medicines used to treat constipation if used in excess may cause diarrhoea.
Certain bowel infections may be more likely if a person has had multiple antibiotic treatments when unwell and bugs that normally do not cause a problem – like Clostridium Difficile – overgrow in the bowel causing symptoms.
Diarrhoea treatment advice
You can usually treat yourself and your child for diarrhoea at home. Diarrhoea caused by an infection should clear up within a couple of days while your immune system fights the infection, but see your doctor if your symptoms persist.
Treatment for diarrhoea depends on the cause, but may include the following:
✔️ Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
The first thing you should do is drink lots of fluids to avoid dehydration. Drinking more fluids than usual will help you to rehydrate. An adult should aim to drink at least 200mls of water after each bout of diarrhoea, so that your urine is clear or pale straw coloured. Sip gently if you’re nauseous or vomiting.
⚠️ Babies, young children, pregnant and vulnerable people with diarrhoea can become dehydrated very quickly and need prompt medical attention. Seek urgent medical help if you suspect someone is dehydrated and not improving.
✔️ Try rehydration products to replace lost salts and minerals
Rehydration products such as Dioralyte, which contains glucose, salts and water, which can be lost through diarrhoea is important at all ages. These don’t stop or reduce diarrhoea but replace lost salts and minerals and keep the body working normally.
✔️ Take anti-diarrhoea medications
For adults, if you need to urgently stop the frequency of loose bowel movements (if you’re going on a plane for example), you can take anti-diarrhoea medicines containing loperamide such as Imodium. Loperamide is not recommended for children under 12 as it is thought better to let the infection clear by itself.
For bacterial diarrhoea in adults, a medication containing bismuth subsalicylate, such as Pepto-Bismol liquid may also be effective.
5 home remedies to treat diarrhoea
Try the following tips to ease your discomfort from diarrhoea:
- Drink lots of water or squash– try sipping from a straw if you are feeling sick. For babies, try giving small sips of water between feeds.
- Get plenty of rest and stay at home– this will help to prevent spreading the infection.
- Eat easily digestible small meals – eat as soon as you feel like it. Try dry crackers, bread or soups. Eggs provide a good source of energy from protein and can help bind the gut contents.
- Avoid certain foods– steer clear of milky dairy products and foods that are high in fat and foods high in fibre until you are fully recovered.
- Take painkillers– If you experience tummy cramps, take the appropriate dose of paracetamol.
When to see the doctor
Make an appointment to speak with your GP if you experience any of the following symptoms. They will initially advise you over the phone, as if the diarrhoea is infectious you may be contagious for 48 hours after the symptoms have passed:
- If you have a fever and have recently returned from a trip abroad.
- If there is any blood in the diarrhoea or persistent fever.
- You are being sick and cannot keep any fluid down.
- If you have diarrhoea associated with severe or constant stomach cramps that do not seem to be improving. A stool sample may need to be taken to exclude infection that needs specific treatment such as antibiotics.
- Persistent diarrhoea for more than 2 days even if coping with symptoms.
Complications are more likely in the very young, pregnant women, the elderly or people with compromised immunity; for example, if you are having chemotherapy treatment. The most common diarrhoea complication is dehydration.
Signs of dehydration in adults and children include:
- Feeling thirsty
- Dark yellow and strong-smelling pee
- Passing urinevery little
- Feeling dizzy/lightheaded or tired, heart may be racing
- Dry mouth, lips and eyes
Children under three may lose interest in feeding and produce fewer wet nappies. Small babies may have a sunken fontanelle (soft spot on the top of the head). If you have any concerns that your child is unwell and could be dehydrated from diarrhoea, call the doctor urgently.
You can reduce your risk of contracting or spreading diarrhoea by maintaining high standards of hygiene at all times. Try the following:
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water after going to the toilet and dry properly after washing.
- Wash your hands before eating or preparing food.
- Do not prepare food for others if you have been infected.
- Regularly clean your toilet with disinfectant and after each bout of diarrhoea if you have been infected. Keep a cloth handy just for cleaning the toilet, or use disposable ones.
- Do not share towels, flannels or kitchen utensils if you have been infected.
- Practise food and water hygiene while travelling abroad, such as avoiding unsafe tap water or ice cubes and undercooked food.
- If you are infected with diarrhoea, stay at home until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea or sickness (vomiting) has passed.