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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).