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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Diarrhea is defined as stool, or poop, 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 diarrhea, 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 diarrhea 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 diarrhea, as well as wiping down toilet seats, surfaces and handles.

You should not cook food for people if you have diarrhea, 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 diarrhea 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 fluids through the loose watery stools. You will also be losing important salts (electrolytes) in the diarrhea, 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, but avoid gulping which will prompt further vomiting. Avoid dairy products as these can irritate the lining of the stomach. Other dietary tips include limiting spicy or fatty foods, avoiding alcohol completely, and increasing your consumption of starchy foods and live culture yogurt.

Anti-diarrhea tablets are not usually required unless the symptoms are particularly severe. In infectious diarrhea, this is a way for the body to get rid of the unwanted virus or bacteria. If you need to take anti-diarrhea medication to stop the diarrhea 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 diarrhea 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 minimize 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 diarrhea with symptoms such as a fever greater than 100 degrees F, 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.

A small number of cases of diarrhea can be serious: if you are concerned about becoming dehydrated or have severe pain or fevers you should speak to your doctor right 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 diarrhea has continued for more than seven days or if you’ve travelled somewhere exotic.

Related topics

Read about: Toddler’s diarrhea

Read about: Diarrhea in children

Read about: Diarrhea and vomiting – how to get through it

Read about: Gastroenteritis

Read about: IBS - diarrhea predominant

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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