I think I have diarrhoea
Diarrhoea is something many of us experience in our lifetimes. From infants to adults, it can often be a common and rather embarrassing ailment. That’s why it is best to learn more about it, the causes, treatment and prevention - depending on your exact situation.
Simply put, diarrhoea is when you frequently pass watery or loose stools. It can sometimes last only a few days and resolve itself without medical attention. This is known as acute diarrhoea and is very common among patients of all ages.
Diarrhoea that lasts for more than four weeks is known as chronic diarrhoea (it can be sporadic or constant), this is considered to be more severe and requires immediate medical attention as it may be linked to an underlying condition or chronic disease. Please consult with your health care professional should you have chronic diarrhoea in order for them to properly diagnose you.
Oftentimes the case is acute, and generally just results in you being uncomfortable for a few days, as it usually passes in a few days or a week. It is important to note that you may lose a lot of water in your stool, be careful not to get dehydrated and drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated. If you start to feel overly tired, have a headache, feel dizzy and experience a dry mouth, lips and eyes, you may be suffering from dehydration, have a look at our article on this to further explore the causes and symptoms and consult with your doctor should you be suffering from any of the aforementioned issues. We’ll also discuss this in more detail later on.
As informative as this article may be, it is written only to serve as a guideline and is not intended to act as a diagnosis or treatment for any associated condition. We would suggest that you please consult with your doctor or healthcare professional for that.
How do I know if I have diarrhoea?
For many people who have experienced diarrhoea before, they are well-accustomed to the symptoms. But, for those who haven’t had them before, the following can be the result of diarrhoea:
- Watery and loose stool
- Cramping of your stomach or bowel section
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling nauseous and possibly vomiting
- Suffering from dehydration
- Urgently needing to run to the toilet to have a bowel movement
- Blood in the stool
When is my diarrhoea serious enough to see my doctor?
Adults and children share similar symptoms when suffering from diarrhoea, however, it is important to also notice the warning signs in your child as they may be too young to verbally express them or not know that something is wrong with them.
You should take your child to the doctor if:
- Diarrhoea continues for more than 24 hours
- Their stools are black or bloody
- Body temperature is recorded at over 39℃ (102.2℉)
- They develop a rash
- Show signs of dehydration (discussed later)
In adults, you should consult with your doctor when:
- You suffer from diarrhoea for more than two days
- You have symptoms of dehydration
- Your stools are black or contain blood
- Your body temperature is over 39℃ (102.2℉)
- You experience severe cramping or abdominal pain
How do I know if I am dehydrated?
One of the most common symptoms of diarrhoea is dehydration, this is caused by the severe lack of liquids in your body as they are being passed through the bowels and through the stool and not being absorbed. If you or your child experience any of the following symptoms you should consult with your doctor immediately:
- Constant thirst
- Dry mouth, skin, lips or eyes
- Feeling dizzy or weak
- Dark yellow urine
- Little urination or none at all
- Having no tears when crying
- Temperature above39℃ (102.2℉)
- Unresponsive and drowsy
- Dry tongue and mouth
- Cheeks, eyes or the fontanelle (the front area of the top of the infant's head) may appear sunken
If you are severely dehydrated, your doctor might get fluids into your system intravenously, which is through a drip and keep you in a hospital to monitor your progress.
It is important to know that frail and elderly people will dehydrate more easily. Ask your pharmacist for sachets with salt, sugar and minerals in them to stay hydrated. These are referred to as oral rehydration solutions.
Can I treat dehydration at home?
If your symptoms are less severe than the above, but you experience some of them in more of an acute form, it is important to stay hydrated. Continuously sip on fluids throughout the day. Try to stay away from caffeine, alcohol and fizzy, high in sugar drinks as these can result in dehydration and avoid excessive sweating in order for your body to not lose any more water than necessary.
What causes diarrhoea?
There are a few causes that result in diarrhoea, they are commonly known as infections of the bowels, those being:
- A viral infection – these can be norovirus (a very common stomach bug in the UK, known as the winter vomiting bug, even though it can be caught at any time of the year) or rotavirus which causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines (gastroenteritis).
Rotavirus results in severely watery stool, vomiting and fever. However, it can be treated and medical advice should be sought. It is commonly known to affect children and can be prevented with a vaccine known as the rotavirus vaccine.
- A bacterial infection – this can often be picked up in food and include examples such as E. coli (Escherichia coli), salmonella or cholera.
- A parasitic infection – these are spread in water and can cause giardiasis and amoebiasis (also known as amoebic dysentery)
Some of the above infections may often be caught when travelling through foreign countries where your stomach is not used to the foreign foods and water and therefore can easily pick up an infection. This acute type of diarrhoea is referred to as traveller’s diarrhoea and it is something many of us are prone to experiencing or have experienced – making for a very uncomfortable few days when on holiday.
It is therefore important to eat food that is not undercooked, expired or unhygienically prepared as well as to avoid water that is not from a tap and clean. It is always a good idea to check out the healthcare options in countries you may be travelling to.
Other causes of diarrhoea
Although diarrhoea can be the result of a bowel infection, it can also be linked to other causes:
- Feeling anxious or suffering from anxiety – this puts a lot of physical stress on your bowels which may lead to your body not processing food well. This can also link to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), often resulting in chronic diarrhoea.
- Overconsumption of alcohol
- Food allergies – when your body is unable to digest a particular food such as lactose found in milk and dairy products, it will often not process it properly, resulting in diarrhoea. Sugary fruits can also result in diarrhoea for some people as their bodies are unable to digest the sugar found in fruits and honey called fructose. This is also common with artificial sweeteners.
- Damage to the intestinal lining due to radiology
- Medication – it is not uncommon that diarrhoea is the side effect of the medicine you are taking. Common medication includes:
- Antibiotics (this can be alleviated by taking these in conjunction with probiotics)
- Chemotherapy drugs
- Other digestive disorders resulting in chronic diarrhoea such as:
- IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
- Inflammatory bowel diseases – these are conditions that cause inflammation of the gut such as ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease as well as Gastroenteritis.
- Gluten intolerance such as coeliac disease
- Bowel cancer
How does my doctor test to see if I have diarrhoea?
Your doctor will first conduct a physical examination and review any medication you are on for side effects. Then, your doctor might also conduct tests to see what the cause is, these can include:
- A stool test – when this test is conducted you will need to provide your doctor with some of your stool – often he/she will provide you with a sanitary container and ask you to come back the next day with the sample. This helps to determine if either a parasite or bacterial infection is the cause of your diarrhoea and which antibiotic or medication would work best against the organism.
- Your doctor might also conduct a blood test to determine the cause in examining your blood. This blood test will also help your doctor determine the severity of your condition, the extent of dehydration (kidney function) and whether or not your blood septic markers are markedly raised.
- The final options for testing for the cause of diarrhoea, keep in mind that these are only conducted once your doctor has exhausted all other means of testing and treatment. These are known as flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. Both of these procedures use a thin tube with a light and lens on the end to look into your colon, a camera at the end of the tube allows for the doctor to see exactly what is happening inside of your colon, this is connected to a computer. A colonoscopy examines the entire colon, whilst a sigmoidoscopy is only a partial examination of the left side of your colon.
Are there home remedy solutions for diarrhoea and how long will it last?
Diarrhoea will commonly last about two to four days for adults and around five to seven days in infants. It can often be an infectious condition and it is best to avoid people if you currently have diarrhoea. Try to stay home for two days and avoid swimming pools for two weeks in order to not infect other people.
In terms of home remedies for acute diarrhoea, the most important thing to do is to drink small sips of water constantly so as to avoid dehydration. Your urine should always be clear or a light yellow colour. If it is bright yellow and has a noticeably strong smell, you need to drink more water.
It also helps to have soup in order to get salt (sodium) into your body to help you to have more energy. It is advised that you avoid fluids that have a high sugar content as these may create a further loss of water from osmosis (water passing through a membrane) via your gut.
When you are not feeling as nauseous and feel ready to eat, try starting with potatoes, bananas, rice and vegetables.
Placing a hot water bottle over your stomach area can also soothe abdominal cramps.
Chronic diarrhoea is considered far more serious, and requires attention from your doctor. Depending on the underlying condition, he/she may refer you to a specialist such as a gastroenterologist in order to ensure proper treatment. The duration of chronic diarrhoea is completely dependent on the cause, be it medication or a bowel condition.
Can I buy over-the-counter medication for diarrhoea?
There are certain medications available from your pharmacist, however, it is important to keep in mind that these are intended to treat acute diarrhoea and not to cure a more chronic case, in this situation, you will need to consult with your doctor.
Some medications for acute diarrhoea
There are two types of medicines to help treat diarrhoea, those that slow down the intestinal spasms and those that thicken the stool.
Antispasmodic antidiarrheal medications
- These slow down the movements or otherwise known as spasms of the intestine, these include products such as Imodium. It is best that you avoid taking this medication in cases of acute diarrhoea where the cause is likely to be viral or bacterial. It is better to allow your body to experience the diarrhoea as this is the body’s natural and protective way of getting rid of the organism causing harm and to ensure that you replenish lost fluid with an oral rehydration solution. This medication is not recommended for children younger than two years old.
- Mixtures such as psyllium, which is a bulk forming laxative, helps to combine the stool and absorb water, making it more firm.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist about what would be the best solution for your diarrheic condition based on your symptoms.
Prescribed medication for diarrhoea:
Antibiotics are sometimes prescribed for diarrhoea caused by bacteria or parasites, however, if the cause is a virus, then antibiotics will not be the solution.
How can I prevent diarrhoea?
It is not always possible to prevent diarrhoea, especially in the chronic cases as these can be a direct result of medication or a more severe underlying condition. However, it is always good practice the following to try and prevent contracting acute diarrhoea:
- Wash your hands after going to the toilet.
- Don’t share items that you have put in your mouth.
- Wash soiled linen or clothes at a high temperature to kill off any germs.
- Keep hydrated.
I have some more questions …
What is the cause of my watery stools?
Diarrhoea is the result of food and liquid not being absorbed by your body and therefore passing through your intestines, resulting in a watery bowel movement.
How long will my diarrhoea last for?
In acute cases, it will last for about two days. However, if the symptoms persist for more than that, it would be best to see your doctor.
Why do I always have diarrhoea?
If you are constantly suffering from diarrhoea, whether it be intermittent or constant, we suggest that you consult with your doctor as you may be experiencing chronic diarrhoea which can be caused by a number of different things. One of the most common is IBS, irritable bowel syndrome.
However, diarrhoea is usually caused by a bowel infection that could be from a bacteria, parasite or virus infection picked up while travelling abroad or elsewhere. Consult with your doctor should you be concerned.