Diarrhoea is common and most people will experience bouts of it many times during their lifetime. Diarrhoea is usually classified as going to the toilet more than three times per day and having loose and watery stools; although, everyone is different and some will pass stools more frequently than others. If you are passing stools more frequently than normal and they are soft, it is likely that you have diarrhoea. Acute diarrhoea causes symptoms to come on very quickly, but it usually clears up within 5 days.

What are the causes of acute diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea occurs when the digestive processes are not working correctly and fluid is not absorbed from the contents of the bowel properly or more fluid is secreted into the bowel, which is why the faeces are watery. There are various causes of diarrhoea, the most common of which is an infection of the bowel known as gastroenteritis, which can be caused by parasites, viruses or bacteria. Diarrhoea is also commonly caused by food poisoning and travelling abroad, with many people finding that they develop diarrhoea when they go to foreign countries; known as traveller’s diarrhoea. Other possible causes of diarrhoea include:

  • Taking particular forms of medication, including antacids, antibiotics, statins, anti-depressants and chemotherapy drugs.
  • Stress and anxiety.
  • Drinking a lot of alcohol.
  • Food allergy.
  • Drinking too much caffeine (this often relates to coffee).
  • Appendicitis.

Symptoms of acute diarrhoea

The most common symptoms of acute diarrhoea are passing stools more frequently than usual (often several times per day) and passing watery, soft stools. Diarrhoea can also cause:

  • Cramps.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • A high temperature.
  • Headaches.
  • Loss of appetite.

If you have diarrhoea you are prone to dehydration, as your body is losing more fluids than usual in the stools. It is therefore important to try and keep drinking water and to arrange to see your GP if your symptoms do not clear up after a few days.

When should I see my GP?

It is advised you visit your GP if symptoms persist for more than a week, you notice blood in your stools, you have recently been treated in hospital, you have lost weight without any justification or you cannot stop vomiting. If your baby or child has diarrhoea, and they have passed more than 6 loose stools in the last 24 hours, they have blood in their stools or they are vomiting persistently, contact your GP.

What will my GP do?

When you see your GP they will ask you about your symptoms and where you have been, what you have eaten, whether you are taking medication and if you are experiencing any pain. Your GP may ask you to provide a stool sample, which will be analysed to check for the presence of bacteria and parasites. If your doctor suspects that diarrhoea may be the result of an underlying health condition, they will likely take a blood sample.

Treatment for diarrhoea

In most cases, no treatment is required for diarrhoea as it tends to clear up by itself after a few days. This is simply a result of the body’s immune system fighting the infection. It is possible to take medication to treat symptoms and help you to get back to your normal life. Antidiarrhoeal medicines help to slow down the movement of the muscles in the gut, which enables more fluid to be absorbed and make stools less watery. Most doctors recommend Loperamide to treat diarrhoea. Diarrhoea increases your risk of dehydration so try to take in plenty of fluids. If you have had diarrhoea for a few days your doctor or pharmacist may advise you to take rehydration salts, which help to replace the fluid and nutrients your body has lost. If you are suffering from painful cramps, taking painkillers may help. You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen, but make sure you stick to the recommended doses and do not take ibuprofen if you suffer from stomach, kidney or liver problems.

Should I eat if I have diarrhoea?

The general consensus among doctors is that you should try to eat solid foods as soon as possible. However, you may not fancy big meals so start with plain foods that are easy to eat, such as toast or crackers. Avoid eating spicy, rich food if you have diarrhoea or have recently suffered from diarrhoea.

Preventing diarrhoea

The vast majority of people experience diarrhoea at some stage during their lives and it is difficult to prevent. However, there are things you can do to lessen your risk of diarrhoea, which include:

  • Be careful when preparing food and make sure meals are piping hot before you serve them.
  • Avoid drinking tap water if you go abroad.
  • Wash your hands before you cook and after you visit the toilet.
  • Clean your toilet after every bout of diarrhoea.
  • Avoid going to work or seeing other people for 48 hours if you have diarrhoea.
  • Avoid storing raw and cooked foods together.
  • Avoid shellfish, salads, ice and foods that may contain raw egg if you are travelling abroad.

Complications of diarrhoea

  • A shortage of energy and motivation.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Nausea
  • Feeling dizzy and light-headed.
  • Muscle cramps.
  • Having a dry tongue.
  • Racing heart rate.

Drinking ample fluids and taking oral rehydration salts can usually treat dehydration. However, in severe cases (this is more widespread in children), hospitalisation may be necessary. If you are admitted to hospital with dehydration, you will be given fluid and nutrients intravenously (through a drip).

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