Improving Health and Wellbeing

Health Details

Diarrhoea

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.