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Diarrhoea

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What is diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea is when you pass stools (poo) more frequently than normal, the stools are usually loose or watery in consistency. Normal bowel habit can vary with each individual and this can be anything from 3 stools per day to 3 per week. A stool should be solid but moist and easy to pass.

Diarrhoea is a common problem, which can affect anyone of any age and most people are affected by diarrhoea at some point in their lives. Diarrhoea usually lasts a day or two and comes on suddenly, this is known as an acute attack. However, you can also have chronic diarrhoea, which lasts over a long period of time (2-3 weeks or months). Chronic diarrhoea may signal the presence of an underlying health problem.

What causes diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea occurs when something upsets the normal process of your intestines and so speeds up the whole digestive process, as a result your bowel movements will be more frequent and liquidy.

Diarrhoea is usually caused by viral or bacteria infections and food poisoning. Common types of bacteria which can cause diarrhoea are e.coli (Escherichia coli) and salmonella, both can be found in contaminated food or water. This type of diarrhoea is more likely to occur when entering a different country and is sometimes known as ‘traveller’s diarrhoea’. Viruses that can cause diarrhoea include herpes simplex and hepatitis.

Diarrhoea may also be caused by taking certain medications such as  antibiotics.

Taking laxatives can also cause diarrhoea, as can drinking too much alcohol and eating spicy foods or large amounts of fruit.

On occasions diarrhoea can be brought on by stress. This happens because the adrenaline that’s pumping around your body speeds everything up and this includes the rate at which food is passed through the body.

Is diarrhoea contagious?

Diarrhoea can sometimes be spread from person to person, especially if hygiene is poor, for example if someone who is ill prepares food for others without washing their hands. This is why it is important to wash your hands with soap and water after using the toilet.

What are the symptoms of diarrhoea?

The main symptom of diarrhoea is the consistency and frequency of the stools. Diarrhoea is often accompanied by lack of appetite, stomach pains, bloated stomach, feeling sick and vomiting. You may also become  dehydrated, this can be dangerous in the very young and elderly. Symptoms of dehydration include thirst, dry skin, dark coloured urine, light headedness and fatigue.

If you keep getting diarrhoea or it lasts for more than 2-3 days it could be a sign of another problem, such as :

If symptoms persist or there is blood in the stools you should see your doctor for advice.

How can I avoid getting diarrhoea?

To avoid getting diarrhoea you should follow these points:

  • Always wash your hands with soap and water after using the toilet.
  • Avoid drinking tap water when abroad unless boiled or from sealed bottles.
  • Avoid drinking excess amounts of alcohol.
  • Don’t eat too much food which contains lots of fibre such as, fruit.

What is the treatment for diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea usually tends to go away on its own without any special treatment, however, to ease diarrhoea symptoms at home follow these steps:

  • Drink plenty of clear fluids, such as water or apple juice in small amounts. If you can, drink something with sugar and salts. There is a sugar-salt powder called oral rehydration treatment (Dioralyte) available from pharmacies, which is dissolved in water and will help replace lost salts and sugars.
  • Avoid eating food until the diarrhoea has settled and then eat bland foods such as, dry toast or bread, boiled potatoes, rice and soup.
  • Avoid eating spicy or fatty foods.
  • Avoid drinking coffee, milk and alcohol.
  • If the symptoms are severe consider taking an anti-diarrhoeal drug such as loperamide (the main ingredient in Imodium and Diocalm Ultra), which can be obtained for adults without a prescription and may be useful for short term relief of diarrhoea, particularly where travel is essential. However, you should always read the label and ask your pharmacist for advice if unsure. These drugs should be avoided if you have any other symptoms and they should not be used long term without prior investigation of the cause of the diarrhoea. Also ensure these drugs are not given to BABIES AND CHILDREN under 12 without medical advice as it could be dangerous.

When suffering with diarrhoea a woman’s contraceptive pill may not give full protection against unwanted pregnancies. Another form of contraceptive, such as condoms should be used for at least 7 days.

Do I need to go and see a doctor?

If symptoms persist, you are losing weight, have a fever or notice blood in your stools you should visit your doctor. Elderly and the very young should also visit the doctor when they suffer with diarrhoea.

Your doctor will usually perform a general examination and may examine the back passage with a finger. Your doctor then may arrange for you to have further tests such as blood tests, x-rays or a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy is a small flexible telescope which is inserted into the back passage so the doctor can see the colon. Your doctor may also want a stool specimen which will be sent away to a laboratory for examination.

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