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Diarrhoea

Introduction

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

It affects most people from time to time and is usually nothing to worry about. However, it can be distressing and unpleasant until it passes, which normally takes a few days to a week.

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

This topic covers:

When to seek medical advice

Causes

Treatment

Prevention

When to seek medical advice

Contact your GP or call NHS 111 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.

Read more about diagnosing the cause of diarrhoea.

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.

Causes of 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 or 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:

Read more about the causes of diarrhoea.

Treating diarrhoea

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

However, diarrhoea can lead to dehydration, so you should drink plenty of fluids – frequent small sips of water – until it passes.

It's very important that babies and small children don't 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.

Stay at home until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea to prevent spreading any infection to others.

Medications to reduce diarrhoea, such as loperamide, are available. However, these aren't usually necessary, and most types shouldn't be given to children.

Read more about treating diarrhoea.

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 others
  • wash soiled clothing and bed linen separately from other clothes and at the highest temperature possible – for example, 60C or higher for linen – after first removing any poo into the toilet 
  • avoid returning to work or school until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea

Read more about preventing germs spreading.

Traveller's diarrhoea

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

If you're planning a trip abroad, check health advice for the countries you'll be travelling to.

You can do this by visiting the NHS Fit for Travel and National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) websites.

Read more about:

Rotavirus vaccination

Rotavirus is a virus that commonly causes diarrhoea in children. A vaccine that helps protect children against rotavirus is now part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule.

This vaccine is given as a liquid that's dropped into a baby's mouth. It's given in two doses, with the first given at two months and another at three months.

Read about the rotavirus vaccine.

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