Diarrhoea is a condition which makes stools soft and watery and causes you to go to the toilet more frequently. This is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection, food poisoning or can be brought on by anxiety. In most cases diarrhoea is not serious and will pass within a few days without treatment. However, for some people the condition can be chronic and persistent. In these cases the cause may be something underlying such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and treatment for this condition may reduce diarrhoea.
Short term diarrhoea can be treated with plenty of rest and fluids. Fluids are vital to prevent dehydration as diarrhoea cause loss of water from the body. As well as dehydration, diarrhoea can also cause pains in the stomach, nausea and vomiting, headaches, and loss of appetite, and if you’re experiencing all of these as well as loose stools you may have diarrhoea.
"Diarrhoea is a common condition caused by a variety factors such as temporary illness or something more long term such as IBS. The symptoms of diarrhoea are unpleasant and often embarrassing, particularly if you’re experiencing incontinence. If your diarrhoea is short term you may not need treatment, drink and fluids and have plenty of rest. If your condition is chronic and persistent it will need further investigation and prescription medication to control the symptoms and shorten the duration such as Loperamide."
What is Diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea is a condition that affects many people at some point in their lives, and some people may experience it on multiple occasions. Diarrhoea can be really unpleasant and uncomfortable as stools are passed more frequently than normal and are looser. This condition causes a need to urgently go to the toilet which can sometimes lead to incontinence if you’re unable to make it to the toilet in time.
For most people, diarrhoea occurs from time to time and will be uncomfortable but will usually pass within a few days, but for others this condition can be chronic. There may be an underlying condition that is causing chronic diarrhoea which will need investigating. Long term, chronic diarrhoea can also lead to dehydration so it’s important that you see a GP urgently if this is the case. Occasional diarrhoea may be a result of illness or a reaction to food. If you’re experiencing the following symptoms you may have diarrhoea:
- Stomach cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
The loss of fluids caused by diarrhoea can lead to dehydration. You should look out for symptoms of dehydration and seek medical help if you are experiencing the following:
- Lack of energy
- Loss of appetite
- Dry tongue
- Sunken eyes
- Muscle cramps
- Rapid heartbeat
What causes diarrhoea?
There are many factors which play a part in stools becoming loose and watery. Diarrhoea is caused by too much fluid in the bowel. Infrequent or short term diarrhoea can be caused by an infection of the bowel otherwise known as gastroenteritis, a virus such as norovirus, bacteria such as E.coli, or a parasite. Other factors such as anxiety, drinking too much alcohol, a food allergy, and appendicitis can all disrupt the digestive system and cause diarrhoea.
Chronic, long term diarrhoea may be caused by an underlying condition such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease, pancreatitis, bile acid malabsorption, diverticular disease, or bowel cancer. If you have persistent diarrhoea you should visit your GP immediately to investigate the cause of your chronic diarrhoea.
Medication may also cause short term diarrhoea such as a course of antibiotics, antacid medicines, NSAIDs, and laxatives. Long term diarrhoea may be caused by taking some medicines long term such as statins to lower cholesterol and also some chemotherapy medicines.
How can diarrhoea affect your life?
When diarrhoea is long term and chronic it causes not only physical pain and discomfort but also emotional distress. Many people who live with this condition constantly may be unable to lead normal lives. Incontinence can be a side effect of diarrhoea which causes distress and embarrassment. Many may feel that they cannot go to social occasions through fear of not being able to make the toilet in time, and this may also affect their working life.
Whether it’s short term or long term diarrhoea the effects can severely impact a person’s daily life.
How is diarrhoea diagnosed?
If you’re experiencing diarrhoea persistently and you’ve had it for more than 7 days it’s time to visit the GP and get it diagnosed so you can be advised on the best way to treat it. The GP may want to know more about your stools such as what they look like, if they’re watery, or there is any blood. You will also need to inform them about how often you have been going to the toilet and if you have any other symptoms. Your GP will also go through some of the causes of diarrhoea and find out if you’re showing any symptoms of these causes.
If your diarrhoea is chronic you may need to provide a stool sample, have a blood test, and maybe a rectal examination to establish whether there is an underlying cause.
How to treat diarrhoea
Diarrhoea may not always need treatment as it will usually pass away on its own in a few days, however, there are ways of easing the symptoms. To help with vomiting and to avoid dehydration drink plenty of water, sip it frequently if you’re vomiting. Try to eat foods which are bland and low in fibre and avoid foods that can worsen diarrhoea such as spicy, fatty or fried foods, as well as raw fruit and vegetables. Take paracetamol if you’re in pain and do stay rested and hydrated.
If you’ve had diarrhoea for more than 7 days you should see your GP urgently as you may need to be prescribed medication. Oral rehydration solution is usually advised to avoid dehydration which you don’t usually need a prescription for. Dehydration may need hospital treatment if it is severe.
In some cases of diarrhoea, antidiarrhoeal medicine may be needed to reduce the symptoms of diarrhoea and the duration. Loperamide is the most commonly used antidiarrhoeal. It enables more water to be absorbed from the stools so that they become firmer, and it does this by slowing down the movements of the muscles in the gut.
You can also take painkillers if your diarrhoea is accompanied with a headache or high temperature. If your diarrhoea is caused by bacteria, antibiotics may be prescribed, however, the cause of your diarrhoea will need to be determined first as antibiotics won’t work for viral infections.
Once the cause of the condition has been found, a doctor will be able to treat accordingly. If another cause such as IBS has been found to be the cause of diarrhoea this condition will firstly need to be treated to avoid the side effect of diarrhoea. Conditions such as IBS are usually treated by making changes to your diet, and with medication.
How to prevent diarrhoea
Diarrhoea is usually caused by an infection that has been passed from one person to another and therefore optimal hygiene should be followed to avoid the spread of these infections. Follow the same hygiene standards as you would when trying to avoid catching any illness such as washing your hands regularly, and avoid sharing cutlery and towels. However, when it comes to diarrhoea you should also clean all of the toilet thoroughly after each time you go, and wash soiled clothing or bedding on a hot wash, separately from the rest of your washing.
To prevent diarrhoea caused by food poisoning you should follow strict food hygiene by always remembering to wash your hands before handling food and making sure it is cooked thoroughly and is within date. This particularly applies to traveling abroad as many people get diarrhoea through travelling to countries which have low hygiene standards so you should avoid drinking tap water or eating undercooked food while abroad.
When to seek medical attention for diarrhoea
If you’ve had diarrhoea for longer than what is normal then it’s wise to visit your GP surgery to get advice, treatment and to discover if there is an underlying cause. If there is blood in your stools or you become severely dehydrated as a result of diarrhoea you should seek urgent medical care such as A&E.