What is Diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea is a fairly common ailment and affects most of us from time to time. Although Diarrhoea can be extremely dangerous in young children and the elderly, in most cases, it can be treated fairly easily.
So what is it? Well diarrhoea is when you pass looser stools than is normal or when you find yourself passing stools more frequently than you normally would. The medical definition states that Diarrhoea is the passing of loose or liquid stools more than three times daily.
It is usually brought on by drinking water contaminated with bacteria, by eating undercooked meat, eggs or inadequate hygiene in the kitchen.
It's a very sad fact that globally, seven children die of diarrhoea every minute. This is mainly due to very poor drinking water and malnutrition, which unfortunately still affects the majority of the worlds population.
What Causes Diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea is often caused by a virus, such as Norovirus or by Bacteria found in contaminated food. It can also be caused by intestinal parasites such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium. It can be acute, meaning only lasting a few days or chronic, lasting more than two to three weeks.
It can also be brought on by anxiety and stress, drinking too much alcohol or as a side-effect to some medicines.
Symptoms of Diarrhoea
This depends on who is affected and how it was contracted, as diarrhoea can have a number of symptoms associated with it.
Depending on the severity of your diarrhoea, you may experience having slightly watery stools and a brief upset stomach or you may find that your stools may be very watery for a prolonged period of time.
Many people with diarrhoea suffer from stomach cramps and an urgent need to rush to the toilet frequently whilst other symptoms can be nausea and vomiting, headache, loss of appetite and dehydration.
Suffering from severe or persistent diarrhoea can lead to you becoming dehydrated.
Symptoms to look out for in children include:-
- irritability or drowsiness
- passing urine infrequently
- pale or mottled skin
- cold hands and feet
- feeling increasingly unwell
Symptoms to look out for in adults are:-
- tiredness and a lack of energy
- feeling light-headed
- dizziness, particularly when standing up
- sunken eyes
- muscle cramps
- rapid heartbeat
- loss of appetite
- dry tongue
When Should You Contact Your Doctor?
Once again this depends on who is affected. Below is a guide for babies, children and adults:-
If your baby has had six or more episodes of diarrhoea in the past 24 hours you should contact your doctor or health visitor immediately.
You should contact your doctor if your child has suffered from any of the following:-
- had six or more episodes of diarrhoea in the past 24 hours
- diarrhoea and vomiting at the same time
- particularly watery diarrhoea
- blood in their diarrhoea
- diarrhoea that lasts more than two weeks (it usually passes within 5-7 days)
- Adults should visit their doctor if they have any of the following symptoms
- diarrhoea and have recently been in hospital
- diarrhoea that lasts longer than a week (it usually passes within 2-4 days)
- recently been treated with antibiotics
- diarrhoea that has blood in it
- diarrhoea and persistent vomiting
- passed a large amount of very watery diarrhoea - you may be at risk of dehydration
- unexplained weight loss
- bleeding from your rectum (back passage)
- diarrhoea at night and it is disturbing your sleep
How is Diarrhoea Treated?
Diarrhoea usually clears up without treatment after a few days due to the immune system fighting off the infection.
The symptoms of diarrhoea in children will usually pass within 5-7 days and in a majority of cases, diarrhoea should not last more than two weeks.
In adults, diarrhoea generally improves within 2-4 days. It can however last longer depending on the type of infection that is involved. For example:-
- rotavirus - 3-8 days
- norovirus - about two days
- campylobacter and salmonella infections - 2-7 day
You can help ease your symptoms by following the advice below. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding and have diarrhoea, this advice also applies.
One of the most important things to remember when suffering from diarrhoea is to drink plenty of fluids. Taking small, regular sips of water will help prevent becoming dehydrated. You are also more likely to become dehydrated if you are vomiting.
It is very important that babies and children stay hydrated. Give them small sips of water (even if they are being sick). Do not give them fizzy drinks or fruit juice though as this can make diarrhoea worse in children.
Children are more at risk of becoming dehydrated 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 your baby has diarrhoea you should continue to feed them whether you are breastfeeding or bottle feeding. If you are breast feeding you should increase your fluid intake to help maintain your milk supply
You may be able to give your baby an ORS (oral re-hydration solution) if they become dehydrated. You must however seek advice from your health visitor, GP or pharmacist before giving re-hydration fluids to young babies and infants.
Conventional Medical Treatments
Anti-diarrhoeal medicines can help reduce diarrhoea and shorten how long it lasts by around 24 hours. These are not usually necessary though, unless you need to shorten the duration of your diarrhoea to enable you to get back to essential activities sooner.
Loperamide is the anti-diarrhoeal medicine that is preferred because it has proven 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.
Some anti-diarrhoeal medicines, such as Dioralyte which are ready-mixed rehydration sachets, can be purchased from a pharmacy without a prescription. However, it is important that you read the patient information leaflet that comes with it to ensure it is suitable for you and what dose to take. If you are at all unsure ask the pharmacist for their advice.
Do not take anti-diarrhoeal medicines if there is mucus or blood in your stools and/or you have a high temperature. If you have any of these contact your doctor.
Children and babies should not be given anti-diarrhoeal medicines.
Very occasionally, hospital treatment may be needed if the diarrhoea has caused you or your child to become seriously dehydrated. Treatment will involve being administered fluids and nutrients directly into a vein (intravenously).
Alternative Home Remedies For Diarrhoea
Not everybody likes taking conventional medicines, preferring to go down the natural route instead. Below is a list of some natural produce that will ease the symptoms of diarrhoea.
Fruit and herbal teas make great diarrhoea relievers. Simply seep any anti-diarrhoeal herbs or fruits, such as chamomile, ginger, wild oregano, blackberries and persimmons in boiling water for three to five minutes and then leave to cool. Once cool, drink one cup of the tea every two hours or until symptoms subside.
White Toast and Crackers
When your intestines are acting normally, it is important to eat whole-grain products but when you are experiencing diarrhoea, it is better to turn to processed wheat foods. This is because they are more easily digested. As an added bonus, the salt (sodium) in crackers will be beneficial in terms of restoring the electrolyte balance.
- Orange Juice Mixing orange juice added to a cup of water with a little salt, makes a great hydrating drink that also helps curb the symptoms of diarrhoea.
- Lime Juice Adding one tablespoon of lime juice to one cup of hot water and drinking the mixture every fifteen minutes will stop diarrhoea occurring within a few hours.
- Nutmeg Swallowing one teaspoon of ground nutmeg will help stop the symptoms of diarrhoea.
- Dairy Products Whilst most dairy products,such as milk, generally make diarrhoea worse, eating one tablespoon cottage cheese mixed with one tablespoon of sour cream, three to five times a day, will actually reduce the occurrence of diarrhoea and relieve its symptoms.
- Ripe banana mixed with 1/4 teaspoon of ground nutmeg and eaten will reduce diarrhoea symptoms.
- Fresh pomegranate Juice Drink one cup of fresh pomegranate juice 3-4 times a day.
As with conventional medicines, if any of the above do not help in eliminating diarrhoea after one week please consult your GP as further treatment may be needed.
How to Avoid Getting Diarrhoea
Maintaining high standards of hygiene will help prevent the spread of infections that cause diarrhoea.
So you should always
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap after going to the toilet and before preparing and eating food
- Avoid sharing flannels, towels, utensils and cutlery
- Clean the toilet, including the handle and the seat with disinfectant after each bout of diarrhoea
- Avoid returning to work or school until at least 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea
Always practising good food hygiene will also help avoid you getting diarrhoea as a result of food poisoning.
Ways you can do this include:-
- Never store raw and cooked foods together
- Make sure food is kept properly refrigerated
- Always cook your food properly
- Never eat food past its sell-by date
- Wash your hands, work surfaces and utensils regularly with hot, soapy water
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