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Diarrhoea

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 3 minutes read
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Diarrhoea is defined as stool, or poo, that is loose or watery and you usually need to go to the toilet more often. It's very common and most cases improve by themselves within a day or two. There are many causes of diarrhoea, ranging from infection, allergy, anxiety, medication side-effects or long term conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Doctor’s advice

Is it contagious?

If diarrhoea is caused by an infection, it's contagious and passed on easily, such as by touching surfaces, clothes or anything else that is shared. Thorough and regular hand washing can lower your chance of catching or passing on infectious diarrhoea, as well as wiping down toilet seats, surfaces and handles.

You should not cook food for people if you have diarrhoea, as you could pass it on to them through preparing the food. In addition, you shouldn’t share towels, toothbrushes or anything else that could risk passing the infection on.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

The majority of cases of diarrhoea can be treated at home with rest and staying hydrated. You will need to drink more than you usually do, as you will be losing fluid through the loose watery stools. You will also be losing important salts (electrolytes) in the diarrhoea, which can be easily replaced with O.R.S Hydration tablets. You can eat small amounts of plain light food as tolerated. If you're vomiting too, drink sips of water regularly, so avoid gulping and prompting further vomiting. Avoid dairy products as these can irritate the lining of the stomach. Other dietary tips include limiting spicy or fatty foods, avoid alcohol completely, and increase your consumption of starchy foods and live culture yoghurt.

Anti-diarrhoea tablets are not usually required unless the symptoms are particularly severe. In infectious diarrhoea, this is part of the body getting rid of the unwanted virus or bacteria. If you need to take anti-diarrhoea medication to stop the diarrhoea for a short amount of time it is best to discuss it with your pharmacist first, or with your doctor via a telephone appointment. Antibiotics are not usually prescribed unless a stool sample shows a bacterial infection, and this is much less common than a viral infection.

Am I fit for work?

Infectious diarrhoea will mean that you are not fit for work and should not return to a work setting until 48 hours after your symptoms stop (unless you work from home)- this is to minimise the risk of passing it onto anyone else.

What will my doctor do?

You should call your doctor if you are over 65 years old, pregnant or have an underlying health condition.

If you have diarrhoea with symptoms such as a fever greater than 38 degrees C, feeling dizzy or faint or you think you are dehydrated (including reduced or absent peeing), or if you have blood or pus in your stools, weight loss, you feel particularly unwell or your symptoms have not improved after four or five days, it's best to speak with your doctor as soon as possible or call NHS 111 for advice.

A small number of cases of diarrhoea can be serious: if you are concerned about becoming dehydrated or have severe pain or fevers, you should speak to your doctor straight away.

The doctor will ask you about your medical history, your recent symptoms and any relevant information that might point to the cause, such as recent travel abroad, a recent hospital admission or course of antibiotics, or you are suspicious of any food eaten recently. If you are seeing them in person, they will check your temperature and have a feel of your tummy. Sometimes, they ask for a stool sample - this is more likely if your diarrhoea has continued for more than seven days or if you’ve travelled somewhere exotic.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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