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. However, it can be distressing and unpleasant until it passes, which normally takes a few days to a week.
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 – such as campylobacter and Escherichia coli (E. coli), which are often picked up from contaminated food
- a parasite – such as the parasite that causes giardiasis, which is spread in contaminated water
These infections can sometimes be caught during travel abroad, particularly to areas with poor standards of public hygiene. This is known as travellers' diarrhoea.
Diarrhoea can also be the result of anxiety, a food allergy, medication or a long-term condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Read more about the causes of diarrhoea.
What to do if you have diarrhoea
Most cases of diarrhoea clear up after a few days without treatment, and you may not need to see your GP.
However, diarrhoea can lead to dehydration, so you should drink plenty of fluids (small, frequent sips of water) until it passes. It's very important that babies and small children do not become dehydrated.
Your pharmacist may suggest that you use an oral rehydration solution (ORS) if you or your child are particularly at risk of dehydration.
You should eat solid food as soon as you feel able to. If you are breastfeeding or bottle feeding your baby and they have diarrhoea, you should try to feed them as normal.
Stay at home until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea, to prevent spreading any infection to others.
Medications to reduce diarrhoea, such as loperamide, are available. However, these are not usually necessary, and most types should not be given to children.
Read more about treating diarrhoea.
When to see your GP
Contact your GP or call NHS 111 for advice if you are concerned about yourself or your child.
It's important to see your GP if the diarrhoea is particularly frequent or severe, or is associated with other symptoms, such as:
- blood in your or your child's poo
- persistent vomiting
- a severe or continuous stomach ache
- weight loss
- signs of dehydration – including drowsiness, passing urine infrequently and feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- your poo is dark or black – this may be a sign of bleeding inside your stomach
You should also contact your GP if your or your child's diarrhoea is particularly persistent, as this may be a sign of a more serious problem. In most cases, diarrhoea should pass within about a week.
Read more about when to contact your GP and diagnosing diarrhoea.
Diarrhoea is often caused by an infection. You can reduce your risk by making sure you maintain high standards of hygiene.
For example, you should
- wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water 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
It's also important to practise good food and water hygiene while travelling abroad, such as avoiding potentially unsafe tap water and undercooked food.
Read more about preventing diarrhoea.
What causes diarrhoea and vomiting in children and how to treat it
Page last reviewed: 26/11/2014
Next review due: 26/11/2016