Diarrhoea or diarrhea occurs when there is an imbalance between the number of bacteria in the gut and the amount of fluid being passed through the intestines.
Quick Jump Table
What is Diarrhoea?
Food nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine. The waste is pushed into the large intestine (bowel) where water is removed. The resulting faeces are stored temporarily within the rectum, then passed out of the body through the anus. Faeces are usually firm, moist and easy to pass. Diarrhoea is the frequent passing of loose, watery and unformed faeces.
Acute diarrhoea is the sudden onset of three or more loose stools per day, lasting less than 14 days. The most common cause of acute diarrhoea is an infection in the intestines, such as gastroenteritis or food poisoning. Viruses handle most cases. The intestinal lining becomes irritated and inflamed, which hinders the absorption of water from food waste. In severe cases, the intestinal lining may even leak water.
Acute diarrhoea resolves after a day or two. Chronic diarrhoea, which lasts four weeks or more, can be caused by a range of conditions that affect the intestines, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
What are the 6 common symptoms of diarrhoea?
The symptoms associated with diarrhoea include;
- abdominal cramps
- abdominal pains,
- urgency to go to the toilet
- frequent passing of loose, watery faeces
What are the serious symptoms of diarrhoea?
In most cases, acute diarrhoea is self-limiting and will resolve by itself within a day or two. However, contact your doctor immediately if you experience serious symptoms, including:
- blood in the faeces
- pus on the faeces
- painful passage of faeces,
- repeated vomiting,
- inability to increase fluid intake
- reduced or absent urination
- fever (temperature greater than 38 ºc).
If you have a serious chronic medical condition, such as kidney or heart failure, even one day of diarrhoea can be dangerous. It’s safer to see your doctor as soon as possible.
What are the causes of acute diarrhoea?
A bout of diarrhoea can be caused by a wide range of disorders, infections and events, including
- food poisoning
- tropical diseases, such as typhoid and cholera
- anxiety or emotional stress
- overconsumption of alcohol
- medications, particularly antibiotics.
What are the causes of chronic diarrhoea?
Some causes of chronic diarrhoea include;
- Coeliac disease–which reduces the intestine’s ability to absorb food
- Chronic constipation–the bowel is blocked by hard, affected faeces, but some liquids seep past the blockage. This condition, called ‘spurious’ or ‘overflow’ diarrhoea, is more common in the elderly.
- Hormone disorders–such as diabetes or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
- Cancer–such as bowel cancer
- Inflammatory bowel disease–including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome–symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, and alternating constipation and diarrhoea
- Lactose intolerance–the inability to digest the milk sugar lactose
- Medications–including antibiotics, antacids that contain magnesium, laxatives, and drugs for treating hypertension (high blood pressure) and arthritis.
Types of infectious agents cause acute diarrhoea
Contaminated food and water are common causes of acute diarrhoea. Some of the infectious agents known to cause diarrhoea include:
- viruses–such as calici virus, adenovirus and rotavirus
- bacteria–such as E. coli, Campylobacter, V. cholerae, Shigella, Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus
- parasites–such as Giardia lamblia, Cryptosporidium parvum and tapeworm.
Diagnosis of diarrhoea
Successful treatment depends on diagnosing the cause. Investigations may include;
- medical history
- physical examination
- blood tests
- laboratory analysis of stool sample
- colonoscopy (the insertion of a slender instrument into the anus so that the doctor can look at the bowel lining).
Treatment for diarrhoea
Always see your doctor if you experience serious symptoms. Babies and young children with diarrhoea need prompt medical attention. Treatment for diarrhoea depends on the cause, but may include;
- Plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration
- Oral rehydration drinks to replace lost salts and minerals. These drinks are available from pharmacies. An alternative is one part unsweetened pure fruit juice diluted with four parts of water.
- Intravenous replacement of fluids in severe cases
- medications such as antibiotics and anti-nausea drugs
- Anti-diarrhoeal medications, but only on the advice of your doctor. If your diarrhoea is caused by infection, anti-diarrhoeal drugs may keep the infection inside your body for longer.
- treatment for any underlying condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease.
Is diarrhoea contagious?
Most cases of acute diarrhoea are potentially infectious to others. Viruses are easily spread, mainly through direct contact with vomit or faeces from an infected person, or through contact with a contaminated object or surface. Occasionally, the virus may be transmitted by airborne particles generated from vomiting and diarrhoea.
People can reduce their chances of getting infected by carefully washing their hands after going to the toilet and before handling food.
People looking after a person with the virus must also wash their hands thoroughly. Alcohol-based handwash solutions, available from pharmacies, have been better at reducing the spread of infection than soap and water, and are less drying to the skin.
Anyone with acute diarrhoea should stay at home if possible to reduce the spread of infection. It is strongly recommended not to visit hospitals and nursing homes, and not to swim in public pools.
How can I stop diarrhoea with diet?
It may help to make a few short-term dietary adjustments while your bowels recover from acute diarrhoea. Get a consultation by your medical professional, but general suggestions include; Limit consumption of fatty, sweet, or spicy foods. Avoid alcohol.
Increase consumption of starchy foods like banana, rice and bread. Increase consumption of yoghurt containing live cultures. Diarrhoea in babies and young children can be caused by fruit juice, so limit these drinks.
Is diarrhoea dangerous?
Acute diarrhoea can be life threatening to babies and young children. This is because their smaller bodies are more vulnerable to dehydration. If your baby or young child develops diarrhoea, seek medical attention straight away.
Diarrhoea or diarrhea?
The word diarrhea is from the Ancient Greek διάρροια from dia and rheo. Diarrhea is the spelling in American English, whereas diarrhoea is the spelling in British English.
- Diarrhoea is the frequent passing of loose, watery faeces.
- In most cases, acute diarrhoea is self-limiting and resolves after a day or two.
- Acute diarrhoea in babies and young children can be life threatening because of the risks of dehydration. (Source)
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