Everything You Need to Know About Diarrhoea / HARTMANN Information Centre

The HARTMANN Team
  1. What Is Diarrhoea?
  2. How Common Is Diarrhoea?
  3. What Are the Symptoms of Diarrhoea?
  4. What Causes Diarrhoea?
  5. How to Prevent Diarrhoea
  6. How to Treat Diarrhoea?
  7. What Are the Complications of Diarrhoea?
  8. How Long Should Diarrhoea Last?
  9. Is There a Way to Stop Diarrhoea Quickly?
  10. What Should You Eat When You Have Diarrhoea?
  11. What Should you Eat After Diarrhoea?
  12. When Should You Seek Medical Advice?
  13. Common Do’s and Don’ts When Suffering From Diarrhoea
  14. Summary

Diarrhoea is one of those complaints that can feel trivial but can have significant consequences to your physical health and overall sense of wellbeing. For those that suffer from faecal incontinence, Diarrhoea can be so difficult to manage that adult incontinence pads can sometimes provide an opportunity to continue through the day away from the bathroom.

In this guide, we will take you through the basics of diarrhoea, to help you gain some perspective and some skills in battling the signs on onset, symptoms, and the consequences.

What is Diarrhoea?

When your stool becomes loose and watery, and you are forced to open your bowels more than three times a day, then you are likely to be suffering from diarrhoea.

How Common Is Diarrhoea?

Acute diarrhoea, or illness that lasts only a short period of time, is a common problem.  This is likely a result of a viral infection that can be passed from person to person or from consuming contaminated food or drink.

Chronic diarrhoea, or diarrhoea that persists over a longer term, may be a result of an underlying condition.  This is less common and should be treated seriously, with a visit to the GP and probably follow-up.  It could be a result of IBS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or something more serious.

What Are the Symptoms of Diarrhoea?

The obvious symptom of diarrhoea is the constant need to go to the toilet to pass stool.  You will find that this stool is watery or loose and there will be an urgency to get to the bathroom.  You may experience pain in the abdomen, as well as cramping and bloating.  You may feel nauseous and lose your appetite.  It is possible that this will be accompanied by a fever, and if serious, bloody stool.

You May Experience Some But Not All of The Following Symptoms:

  • Constant need to pass stool
  • Watery or loose stool
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Fever
  • Bloody stool

What Causes Diarrhoea?

What Causes Long Term Diarrhoea?

Chronic diarrhoea can be a result of an underlying condition.  Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), for instance, impacts one in five people.  With IBS you can often switch between constipation and diarrhoea.  There are other causes of long-term diarrhoea, such as colitis or Crohn’s disease.  It can also be a result of major operations that have resulted in some of the bowel being removed.

Chronic diarrhoea can also be a result of an infection that will not pass, overuse of laxatives, and a poor diet that involves too much caffeine and sweets.

All cases of long-term diarrhoea should be investigated by your doctor.  Chronic diarrhoea is considered such when you have suffered loose and watery stools and other symptoms for more than two weeks.

What Causes Short Term Diarrhoea?

Short-term diarrhoea may be a result of an infection passed from person to person or through food.  Gastroenteritis, often referred to as a tummy bug, or food poisoning can commonly result in distressing bouts of diarrhoea.  However, there are more straightforward reasons that are easier to manage.  For instance, if you eat too much fibre, such as significant quantities of dried fruit, or just drinking too much fruit juice.  You may drink a lot of caffeine with artificial sweeteners, which has a diuretic effect on the body – diuretic effect being the need to go to the toilet.  Finally, a common reason for an imbalance in the movement of our bowels is stress and anxiety.

You may also experience diarrhoea when taking some antibiotics and this should pass once you have stopped taking the medication.

Long Term Diarrhoea Causes

  • IBS
  • Colitis
  • Crohn's Disease
  • Overuse of Laxatives
  • Poor Diet Habits

Short Term Diarrhoea Causes

  • Gastroenteritis
  • Poor Diet Habits
  • Usage of Certain Medications

How to Prevent Diarrhoea

If you experience diarrhoea it is important that you take steps to avoid the spread of your symptoms.  Therefore, it is best if you stay home for 48 hours from the last episode of symptoms.  Within the home, you should make every effort to wash your hands, to avoid the spread of the virus or bacteria.  You should also wash soiled clothing and bedding separately, as well as ensuring all surfaces such as toilet seats, taps, and other surfaces are cleaned thoroughly.  Avoid sharing towels, flannels, cutlery, etc. within the household.

Probably one of the most important ways to prevent diarrhoea is with appropriate food hygiene.  Effective food hygiene includes using the right chopping board for the right products.  It also requires the proper cleaning procedures.  However, more essential is a , particularly before eating.

 

Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. (2019). Hand Hygiene Information | Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. [online] Available at: https://www.hey.nhs.uk/patient-leaflet/hand-hygiene-information/ [Accessed 20 May 2019].

Travellers' Diarrhoea is an intestinal infection caused by eating or drinking contaminated food or water.  Areas with the highest risk of traveller’s diarrhoea are the developing countries in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia.  The risk depends on the level of exposure.  You are less likely to suffer when eating hot foods and factory sealed drinks.  However, if you eat raw foods or tap water then the chances of suffering with traveller’s diarrhoea are high.

Simple Ways to Avoid Travellers’ Diarrhoea:

  • Drink only bottled water
  • Avoid raw foods
  • Ensure all food is thoroughly cooked

How to Treat Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea will often pass without treatment after a few days.  Your body should be able to fight the underlying infection.  You should keep hydrated by taking frequent sips of water or diluted fruit squash.  This may be difficult if you are also vomiting.  However, a small amount of water is better than none; therefore, it is best to keep persevering and trying to drink.

There are also antidiarrheal medicines.  Loperamide is a common medicine used to relieve symptoms by slowing down the movement of the bowel and helping the gut to absorb some of the fluids.  However, if you experience a high temperature or blood in your stool, you should not take antidiarrheal medicines.  You should never give these medicines to your children.  Always follow the advice on the side of the box or consult a medical professional.

If accompanied by a fever or a headache, you can also take paracetamol or ibuprofen.  Avoid ibuprofen if you are asthmatic or if you are suffering with problems of the stomach, liver or kidney.  You can also offer liquid paracetamol and ibuprofen to a child.

If someone is also suffering from incontinence, the need to care for the skin is even greater. Many barrier preparations which can be bought over the counter will form a waterproof layer on an incontinence pad if not used correctly, and this will lead to further skin irritation and risk of break down. It is important that barrier creams are applied correctly according to the manufacturers advice.

Antibiotics are not a recommended treatment for diarrhoea, as they can be a cause of more frequent and looser bowel movement.  Antibiotics will also not be effective against a viral infection.  If the underlying cause is identified as bacterial and the doctor does not feel that this will pass over a period of 3 – 10 days, then they may offer antibiotics.  It is also a likely option if your doctor is treating an underlying health problem for which diarrhoea is one symptom.

  • Wait for it to pass
  • Keep hydrated
  • Eat, if possible
  • Self-medicate with antidiarrheal medicines
  • Visit the GP if symptoms persist or if there is blood in the stool or a fever

What Are the Complications of Diarrhoea?

The main concern for those struggling with diarrhoea is dehydration and loss of electrolytes – including sodium, potassium and magnesium. This may result in people with severe diarrhoea collapsing and feeling debilitated.  If the chronic and severe diarrhoea goes on for too long it is possible for it to result in fainting.  It is important to try to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids including water or squash. If the diarrhoea is severe then you can also purchase oral rehydration sachets which you mix with water to make a drink.

How Long Should Diarrhoea Last?

Acute diarrhoea should last between three and 10 days.  Chronic diarrhoea can last for more than two weeks.  The diarrhoea may last longer in children than in adults.  An adult should expect to feel relief from symptoms between 2 and 4 days, while a child may experience diarrhoea for between 5 and 7 days.

Is There a Way to Stop Diarrhoea Quickly?

Diarrhoea will usually stop between 5 to 7 days if it is caused by a virus and the best treatment is to drink plenty of fluids and eat when you feel able to – you don't need to eat or avoid any specific foods. However your pharmacy may be able to help with over the counter medication to slow down the diarrhoea.

What Should You Eat When You Have Diarrhoea?

It is important to keep eating during an episode of diarrhoea and eating bland foods which are easy for your body to tolerate such as toast are usually the best.

What Should you Eat After Diarrhoea?

After a bout of diarrhoea, you should continue to eat bland foods until your body has fully recovered.  You should be able to eat a regular diet after about 48 hours, including portions of fruit and vegetables.

When Should You Seek Medical Advice?

Children and babies are more likely to suffer with diarrhoea.  They could experience up to three or four bouts of diarrhoea a year.  If your baby is under 12 months old and you are concerned, they are suffering from severe dehydration, with symptoms of an overly dry mouth, sunken eyes, failure to urinate, lethargic or inconsolable.

Barring these additional symptoms, it is possible to wait for the diarrhoea to pass in babies and young children.  However, if this goes on for more than a week it is best to see a GP just in case.

Adults, along with children and babies, should seek medical attention immediately if there is blood in the stool or if there is a temperature higher than 38 degrees celsius.  Otherwise, as with children, adults should wait to see if the symptoms pass on their own.  If the symptoms last for more than 2 weeks an adult should seek medical assistance, to assess if there is an underlying cause that needs investigating and treating.

Common Do’s and Don’ts When Suffering From Diarrhoea

Do’s Don’ts
Get plenty of rest and stay at home Don’t consume fruit juice or fizzy drinks as they can worsen the symptoms of diarrhoea
Stay hydrated by drinking fluids such as water, or squash. Keep baby formula at its normal strength. Do not weaken it.
Babies than are on formula should be given small sips of water between feeds Children under 12 should not be given diarrhoeal medicine
You don’t need to avoid specific food – eat when you are able to
Paracetamol can be used to manage discomfort


Summary

Diarrhoea is a common illness that everyone will experience at some point in their life.  There are treatments you can apply at home, including staying hydrated, and self-medicating with painkillers to manage the symptoms. It may be a good idea to speak to your pharmacist, who will be able to advise on sensible over-the-counter medications to help too.   If there is blood in the stool or a high temperature, or if the symptoms last for more than a week in children, for more than two weeks in an adult, then you should see your GP.


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References

Bladder & Bowel Community. (2019). Diarrhoea - Bladder & Bowel Community. [online] Available at: https://www.bladderandbowel.org/bowel/bowel-problems/diarrhoea/ [Accessed 13 May 2019].

Mitchell, G., Stephenson, J., Ford, M. and Stephenson, J. (2019). Diarrhoea. [online] Nursing Times. Available at: https://www.nursingtimes.net/diarrhoea/1994714.article [Accessed 13 May 2019].

NHSinform.scot. (2019). Diarrhoea causes and treatments. [online] Available at: https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/stomach-liver-and-gastrointestinal-tract/diarrhoea#diagnosing-diarrhoea [Accessed 13 May 2019].

WebMD. (2019). Preventing Diarrhea. [online] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/understanding-diarrhea-prevention [Accessed 13 May 2019].

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