Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is passing looser or more frequent stools (poo) than is normal for you. It affects most people from time to time and is usually nothing to worry about. However, it can be unpleasant until you get better. This normally takes a few days to a couple of weeks.

Symptoms associated with diarrhoea 

Diarrhoea is where you frequently pass watery or loose poo. Some people may also have other symptoms, depending on the cause.

Associated symptoms can include:

  • stomach cramps
  • nausea and vomiting
  • headache
  • loss of appetite

The excessive loss of water in your poo can also sometimes lead to dehydration. This can be serious if it's not recognised and treated quickly.

What causes diarrhoea? 

There are many different causes of diarrhoea, but a bowel infection (gastroenteritis) is a common cause in both adults and children.

Gastroenteritis can be caused by:

  • a virus – such as norovirus or rotavirus
  • bacteria – such as campylobacter and Escherichia coli (E. coli), which are often picked up from contaminated food 
  • a parasite – such as the parasite that causes giardiasis, which is spread in contaminated water

These infections can sometimes be caught during travel abroad, particularly to areas with poor standards of public hygiene. This is known as travellers' diarrhoea.

Diarrhoea can also be the result of:

What to do if you have diarrhoea

Most cases of diarrhoea clear up after a few days without treatment. You may not need to see your GP.

However, diarrhoea can lead to dehydration. You should drink plenty of fluids – small, frequent sips of water – until it passes. It's very important that babies and small children do not become dehydrated.

Your pharmacist may suggest you use an oral rehydration solution (ORS) if you or your child are particularly at risk of dehydration.

You should eat solid food as soon as you feel able to. If you're breastfeeding or bottle feeding your baby and they have diarrhoea, you should try to feed them as normal.

Medications to reduce diarrhoea are available. However, these are not usually necessary, and most types should not be given to children.

Stay at home until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea to prevent spreading any infection to others, for example, staying away from work, school, childminders and nursery.

Depending on the cause, you or your child may need to stay away from swimming pools for two weeks after the diarrhoea has settled.

Young children under five may need to stay at home longer. They are more likely to spread infection than an older child, as they are less likely to understand the importance of basic hygiene (see below).

When to seek medical advice 

Contact your GP or GP out of hours services for advice if you're concerned about yourself or your child.

You should also contact your GP in the situations outlined below, as they may mean an increased risk of a more serious problem.

Babies 

You should contact your GP or health visitor urgently if your baby has had six or more episodes of diarrhoea in the past 24 hours, or if they've vomited three times or more in the past 24 hours.

You should also seek advice if your baby has any symptoms of dehydration.

Children 

Contact your GP if your child has: 

  • had six or more episodes of diarrhoea in the past 24 hours
  • diarrhoea and vomiting at the same time
  • watery poo
  • blood in their poo
  • a severe or continuous stomach ache
  • symptoms of dehydration

You should also contact your GP if your child has persistent diarrhoea. Most cases will pass in five to seven days.

Adults

Contact your GP if you have diarrhoea and:

  • there's blood in your poo
  • you're vomiting persistently
  • you've lost a lot of weight
  • you've passed a large amount of very watery diarrhoea
  • it occurs at night and is disturbing your sleep
  • you've recently taken antibiotics or been treated in hospital
  • you have symptoms of dehydration
  • your poo is dark or black – this may be a sign of bleeding inside your stomach

You should also contact your GP if you have persistent diarrhoea. Most cases in adults will pass in two to four days.

Preventing diarrhoea 

Diarrhoea is often caused by an infection. You can reduce your risk by making sure you maintain high standards of hygiene.

For example, you should:

  • wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after going to the toilet and before eating or preparing food
  • clean the toilet, including the handle and the seat, with disinfectant after each bout of diarrhoea
  • avoid sharing towels, flannels, cutlery, or utensils with other household members

It's also important to practise good food and water hygiene while travelling abroad, such as avoiding potentially unsafe tap water and undercooked food.

 

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information, read terms and conditions.

This page was reviewed September 2017

This page is due for review March 2020

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