Diarrhoea is the passing of watery stools more than is normal for you. It is often a symptom of an infection or long-term condition. In this video, Dr Rupal Shah explains the most common causes of diarrhoea and the effects it can have on your body.

Media last reviewed: 30/04/2013

Next review due: 30/04/2015

Travellers' diarrhoea

Travellers' diarrhoea is a common problem that affects 20-60% of travellers who visit high risk parts of the world, such as Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

You can get travellers' diarrhoea by consuming contaminated food or water.

Most cases are mild and get better after three to five days without treatment. It's important that you drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. More severe cases may need treatment with antibiotics.

Read more about treating travellers' diarrhoea and preventing travellers' diarrhoea.

Digestive health

Find out how to beat common digestive problems like bloating and indigestion

Diarrhoea is passing looser or more frequent stools than is normal for you.

It affects most people from time to time and is usually nothing to worry about.

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, which is often found in contaminated food 
  • a parasite

The symptoms associated with diarrhoea can vary depending on the cause. For example, if your diarrhoea is caused by an infection, you may also have a fever and severe stomach cramps.

In adults, bouts of diarrhoea can sometimes be the result of anxiety or drinking too much coffee or alcohol. Diarrhoea can also be a side effect of certain types of medication.

Read more about the causes of diarrhoea.

Treating diarrhoea

Most cases of diarrhoea clear up after a few days without treatment.

In adults, it usually improves after two to four days. In children, it often lasts slightly longer, between five and seven days.

Diarrhoea can lead to dehydration if it's severe, frequent or both, so you should drink plenty of fluids (small, frequent sips of water) while you have diarrhoea. It is very important that babies and small children do not become dehydrated.

Your pharmacist may suggest you take an oral rehydration solution (ORS) if you are particularly vulnerable to the effects of dehydration. If you are 60 years of age or over, frail, or you have a health condition such as cardiovascular disease, for example, you should take extra care.

Antidiarrhoeal medicine is not usually necessary unless it is important that you shorten the length of time your diarrhoea lasts for (for example, if you need to take a long-haul flight). Loperamide is the main medicine used to treat diarrhoea as it has been shown to be effective and has few side effects. Children should not take this medicine.

Read more about treating diarrhoea.

When to see your GP

In adults, diarrhoea that lasts more than a few weeks may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as bowel cancerCrohn's disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

If you have persistent diarrhoea, you should visit your GP so the doctor can try to establish a cause. This is particularly important if you have blood or pus in your faeces.

If your baby or child has had six or more episodes of diarrhoea in the last 24 hours, you should take them to see your GP.

You should also visit your GP if you have diarrhoea and you are very unwell. Your GP may decide to investigate further by sending a stool sample to be analysed in a laboratory, for example.

Read more about when to contact your GP.

Preventing diarrhoea

To prevent diarrhoea caused by infection, you should take steps to prevent the infection spreading. For example, make sure you:

  • wash your hands thoroughly 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
  • stay at home until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea

Read more about preventing diarrhoea.

Page last reviewed: 28/11/2012

Next review due: 28/11/2014


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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Davie30s said on 21 October 2013

Following IBS diagnosis given by my doctor this is a record of what I took over a period of say 6 months towards the end of a 5 year period of stomach and general illness. The only other treatment I had was a dose of mebendazole in 2010 which helped a little with the symptoms temporarily but did not cure the illness.

1-2 month period of taking
*Stomach cleanse and parasite cleanse
*Raw Pineapple cleanse - raw pinapple smoothies over a 3 day period
*Garlic tablets (good quality) daily with each meal
*Enzymes taken intermittently before food or at night
*Monolaurin and raw virgin coconut oil in manageable doses
*MSM - high dosing
*Salt baths
*Sea salt cleanse and salt washes
*Oil of oregano
*Probiotics in the evening

Followed by 2 month period+ of taking (with few day-1weeks rest for ACV and Horsetail)
*Horsetail tincture along with Horestail tea
*Apple cider vinegar (morninig and evening)
*Enzyme tablets

The following to help restore energy and build muscle once stomach felt better
*ATP *Myomin *Tyrosine *Protein *Multi-vitamins (include magnesium) *More intense exercise introduced

Insomnia and anal itching disappeared 1 month into this treatment. I am not sure what has cured the IBS exactly or if it was a combination of the above together but it has gone. I do not believe IBS was stress related in my case and probably in many cases. I believe it is a low level chronic bacterial or yeast infection in many cases that needs correcting.

The history of this is I had a serious stomach problem back in 2008 where I became very ill. Symptoms were numerous - diarrhoea, fever, fluctuating heart rhythyms, insomnia, itching anus, feelings of paralysis in limbs, flooding feeling in lungs, eosinophilia, enlarged spleen, lump in right leg, fatigue. After seeing many doctors over a two year period main opinions were giardia or suspected intestinal parasites. My own opinion was it was the later with maybe a yeast infection thrown in.

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primandmodder said on 25 May 2012

the written introduction states diarrhoea is passing watery stools more than three times a day yet the doctor says more than your usual bowel motionsThis could be confusing but the doctors advice on the video sounds more clear and good advice

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john1970 said on 23 December 2011

clear helpful accessible advice - this is excellent.

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