Diarrhoea - Treatment 

Treating diarrhoea 

Diarrhoea will usually clear up without treatment after a few days because the immune system fights off the infection.

In children, the symptoms of diarrhoea will usually pass within five to seven days. In most cases, diarrhoea does not last more than two weeks.

In adults, diarrhoea usually improves within two to four days. However, it can last longer depending on the particular type of infection involved. For example:  

  • rotavirus – three to eight days
  • norovirus – about two days
  • campylobacter and salmonella infections – two to seven days
  • giardiasis – several weeks

While waiting for your diarrhoea to pass, you can ease your symptoms by following the advice outlined below. This advice also applies if you are pregnant or breastfeeding and have diarrhoea.

Read more healthy lifestyle advice while breastfeeding

Drink fluids

It is important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Take small, frequent sips of water. You are more likely to become dehydrated if you are also vomiting.

It is very important for babies and small children not to become dehydrated. Give your child frequent sips of water, even if they are vomiting. A small amount is better than none. Fruit juice or fizzy drinks should be avoided because they can make diarrhoea worse in children.

Contact your GP immediately if your child shows signs of dehydration, such as: 

  • irritability or drowsiness
  • passing urine infrequently
  • pale or mottled skin
  • cold hands and feet
  • becoming increasingly unwell  

Children at increased risk of dehydration

Your child's risk of becoming dehydrated is increased if they:

  • are younger than one year old (particularly if they are less than six months)
  • are younger than two years old and had a low birth weight
  • have had more than six episodes of diarrhoea in the last 24 hours
  • have vomited more than twice in the last 24 hours
  • have been unable to hold down fluids
  • have suddenly stopped breastfeeding

If you are breastfeeding or bottlefeeding your baby and they have diarrhoea, you should continue to feed them as normal. While breastfeeding, you should increase your fluid intake to help maintain your milk supply.   

You may be able to give your baby oral rehydration solution (ORS) if they become dehydrated. However, check with your pharmacist or health visitor before giving rehydration fluids to young babies and infants.

Read more about diarrhoea and vomiting in children.

Oral rehydration solutions (ORS)

Your GP or pharmacist may suggest using an oral rehydration solution (ORS) if you or your child are at risk from the effects of dehydration. For example, if you: 

  • are 60 years of age or over
  • are frail
  • have a pre-existing health condition, such as cardiovascular disease  

Rehydration drinks usually come in sachets available from your local pharmacist without a prescription. They are dissolved in water and replace salt, glucose and other important minerals that are lost through dehydration.

Rehydration drinks do not cure diarrhoea but they can help treat or prevent dehydration. Avoid using homemade salty or sugary drinks.

Children

Your GP or pharmacist may recommend giving your child an ORS if they are dehydrated or at risk of becoming dehydrated.

The usual recommendation is for your child to drink an ORS each time they have an episode of diarrhoea. The amount they should drink will depend on their size and weight. Your pharmacist will be able to advise you about this. The manufacturer's instructions should also give information about the recommended dose.

Eating

Opinion is divided over when and what you should eat if you have diarrhoea. However, most experts agree that you should eat solid food as soon as you feel able to. Eat small, light meals, avoiding fatty, spicy or heavy foods.

If you feel you cannot eat, it should not do you any harm. Make sure you continue to drink fluids and eat as soon as you feel able to.

Children

If your child is dehydrated, do not give them any solid food until they have drunk enough fluids. Once they have stopped showing signs of dehydration, they can start eating their normal diet.

If your child is not dehydrated, offer them their normal diet. If they refuse to eat, continue to give them fluids and wait until their appetite returns.

Medicines 

Antidiarrhoeal medicines

Antidiarrhoeal medicines may help reduce your diarrhoea and shorten how long it lasts by around 24 hours. However, they are not usually necessary unless shortening the duration of your diarrhoea helps you get back to essential activities sooner. 

Loperamide is the main antidiarrhoeal medicine used because it has been shown to be effective and causes few side effects. Loperamide slows down the muscle movements in your gut so that more water is absorbed from your stools. This makes your stools firmer and they are passed less frequently.

An alternative to loperamide is a different type of antidiarrhoeal medicine called racecadotril, which works by reducing the amount of water produced by the small intestine. Evidence suggests this medication is as effective as loperamide for treating diarrhoea.

Some antidiarrhoeal medicines can be bought from a pharmacy without a prescription. Check the patient information leaflet that comes with the medicine to find out whether it is suitable for you and what dose you should take. Ask your pharmacist for advice if you are unsure.

Do not take antidiarrhoeal medicines if there is blood or mucus in your stools and/or you have a fever (high temperature). Contact your GP.

Most antidiarrhoeal medicines should not be given to children, although racecadotril can be used in children over 3 months old if it is combined with oral rehydration and the other measures mentioned above.

Painkillers

Painkillers will not cure your diarrhoea, but you can take the recommended dose of paracetamol or ibuprofen if you have a fever or a headache. Do not take ibuprofen if you have asthma or stomach, liver or kidney problems.

If necessary, you can give your child liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen. Check the patient information leaflet to find out whether it is suitable for your child. Children under 16 years of age should not be given aspirin.

Antibiotics

Treatment with antibiotics is not recommended for diarrhoea if the cause is unknown. This is because antibiotics:

  • will not work if the diarrhoea is caused by a virus 
  • can cause unpleasant side effects 
  • can become less effective at treating more serious conditions if they are repeatedly used to treat mild conditions

Antibiotics may be recommended if you have very severe diarrhoea and a specific type of bacteria has been identified as the cause.

They may also be recommended if you have a pre-existing risk factor that makes you more vulnerable to infection, such as a weakened immune system.

Hospital treatment 

Occasionally, hospital treatment may be needed if you or your child is seriously dehydrated due to diarrhoea. Treatment will involve administering fluids and nutrients directly into a vein (intravenously).

Page last reviewed: 28/11/2012

Next review due: 28/11/2014

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Comments

The 9 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Izzy2010 said on 28 July 2014

Do probiotics help? ... I have had this on and off for almost a week now... wondering when I should contact GP

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Am89 said on 08 April 2014

Hi I'm 24 and for the past 7years I suffered with extreme abdominal pain the doctors thought it was Ibs and basically fobbed me off untill a very good doctor sent me for a scan and came back my gallbladder was very inflamed and had gallstones inside but had turned "mushy" because they been in there so long.
Anyway over a year ago I randomly starting having episodes of constant diarreahea and it has not gone since I have been taking codeine to stable it but I had my op over a month ago to remove my gallbladder and all though am greatful my stomach is perfect now I still have the diarrhoea which makes me sad. Could this be a twisted bowel or inflamed bowl? Help!

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Hamsterchic said on 13 March 2014

Towards the end of the day at work didn't feel well at all I went to the toilet twice at about a 20 minute apart .I was feeling sick on the way home did try to retch but couldn't do anything more than bring up mucus.
When I got home I went to the toilet again my stools were very loose and I was sick bringing up lots of partially digested food. Looked like the fruit salad I'd made for my lunch
Is there

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Melangell said on 21 April 2013

When I had campylobacter I was advised to drink a small amount of warm milk mixed with turmeric and cinammon: it seemed to help.

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hiphop said on 09 February 2012

On returning from South Africa I have had diarrohea for almost a week now with cramping pains if I eat anything. could I have caught the current norovirus that is going around, maybe on the plane. I am very careful about washing hands etc and my husband has not contracted it. Should I see a doctor or ride it out?

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MrsJKA said on 06 December 2011

I am trying to find advice for breastfeeding mothers who have diarrhoea, but this is not mentioned? Nor is pregnancy.

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David Edge said on 17 March 2011

The advice not to take loperamine if there's blood in your stools is good, but it may not be obvious. I spent two days sleeping 20+ hours a day in India until I realised the loperamide was doing no good; I stopped taking it and woke up. I believe that's because the loperamide was getting into my bloodstream. So maybe worth advising people to avoid if they get very sleepy.

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spamela said on 04 February 2010

I'm in my 5th day of diarrhoea and have had lots of drinks and arrowroot biscuits. I had avisit from th on call doctor on th3rd day after an episod where my B/p sank to 50/30 and I passed out. I was told not to eat anything for48 hours so I am interested in the advice to eat carbohydrates.
I am using rehydration therapy.
I have often joked about wishing I could have a "wasting disease " as I have long been overweight but after this episode I will not joke again !

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Lisbet said on 25 January 2010

So glad to get the advice that I can eat when I feel like it. I thought I would have to wait till the dreaded diarrohea had gone altogether.

Thank you for such useful advice. Great help.

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Sore bottom

If the skin around your anus is sore, you can: 

  • wipe it with moist toilet paper or cotton wool (avoid using baby wipes because they often contain alcohol)
  • wash your anus after a bowel movement – use a shower attachment or a soft, disposable cloth and non-scented soap before patting the area dry
  • apply diluted witch hazel with wet cotton wool 
  • apply a thin layer of barrier cream or ointment
  • wear cotton underwear and avoid tight-fitting clothes

Medicines for babies and toddlers

Not all medicines are suitable for young children. Find out what to use to treat your sick child

Looking after a sick child

How to look after a sick child, including dealing with minor accidents and getting help

Diarrhoea and vomiting in children

What causes diarrhoea and vomiting in children and how to treat it