What is diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea is a loose, watery stool that occurs more than 3 times in 1 day. It is a common problem that usually lasts a day or 2 and goes away within 2 weeks without needing any special treatment. If your diarrhoea doesn’t go away, it can be a sign of other problems.
Diarrhoea can range in severity from slightly watery faeces and a brief abdominal discomfort to longer term, extremely watery faeces and cramping abdominal pains. Many people will also have a frequent, urgent need to go to the toilet.
What symptoms are related to diarrhoea?
Other common symptoms associated with diarrhoea include:
- nausea or vomiting
- a fever
- loss of appetite
- stomach pain or cramps
- an urgent need to go to the toilet
- lack of energy
In adults, the symptoms of diarrhoea usually improve within 2 to 4 days.
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What causes diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea can be caused by a virus or bacterial infection or in chronic cases it can be a sign of an inflammatory bowel condition or infection.
Causes of diarrhoea include:
- gastroenteritis caused by a virus or bacteria
- food poisoning from food contaminated by a virus or bacteria
- anxiety or emotional stress
- overconsumption of alcohol
- medications, including antibiotics
- lactose intolerance
- parasitic infections such as giardia
- coeliac disease
- food intolerances
- irritable bowel syndrome
- inflammatory bowel disease
- a shortened bowel because of surgery
Acute diarrhoea is common and affects nearly everyone at some point. It should go away within a few days. Everyone is different so it might last longer in some people than others.
Chronic diarrhoea continues for a longer period of time — usually more than 2 weeks — and is often a sign of an underlying illness.
When should I see my doctor?
Babies, young children and the elderly with diarrhoea are at a high risk of dehydration so should be monitored closely and may need medical attention. If diarrhoea lasts for more than a few days it may be a sign of a more serious condition and you should see your doctor.
Babies under 3 months of age with diarrhoea should be taken to see the doctor.
A child with diarrhoea who is drinking well and who is alert and responsive can be looked after at home. In most cases, the diarrhoea will settle in a few days.
You should see your doctor if you, your child or an elderly adult:
- has bright red blood or mucus in the diarrhoea
- has diarrhoea that is very dark, tar-like and smelly
- has diarrhoea that is pale or greasy with a foul smell that is difficult to flush
- develop a high temperature that does not respond to paracetamol
- has diarrhoea that is getting worse in amount and/or frequency or lasting longer than 48 hours in children
- is developing symptoms of dehydration (increased thirst, urinating less than normal or changing fewer wet nappies, dark urine, dizziness, lethargy in children)
- has associated vomiting and can’t keep anything down
- has diarrhoea as a result of taking medication
- has severe pain in the abdomen and can’t do anything because of the pain
- is losing weight
- has a chronic illness, such as diabetes
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How is diarrhoea treated?
Diarrhoea often goes away without treatment after a few days, because your immune system (the body's natural defence system) automatically fights the infection.
The best thing to do is to rest at home and don’t go to work or school or childcare, until you have had no symptoms 24 hours if the cause has not been identified. You may need to stay home for 48 hours until the cause has been identified.
If your work involves handling food or looking after children, the elderly, or patients, do not return to work until 48 hours after the last episode of vomiting or diarrhoea.
You can stay hydrated by doing the following:
- Drink fluids such as water, oral rehydration fluids from the pharmacy as directed on the packet, diluted cordial, soft drink or juice — 1 part to 4 parts water.
- Take small frequent sips of fluid if nausea is also present.
- Continue to breast or bottle feed your baby — you may need to feed smaller amounts more regularly.
- Severe dehydration will need to be treated in hospital with intravenous fluids.
If you are in pain, get advice on which medicines you can take. Antibiotics are only prescribed if the diarrhoea is caused by a bacteria or parasite. To know if antibiotics are needed, your doctor will send a sample of the diarrhoea to a laboratory for testing.
Anti-diarrhoeal medicines may reduce the diarrhoea and shorten its duration by around 24 hours. However, they are not usually necessary unless shortening the duration of your diarrhoea helps you get back to your essential activities sooner. If diarrhoea is caused by an infection, taking these medications may keep the infection inside the bowel. Anti-diarrhoeal medicines should be taken on the advice of a doctor and should not be given to infants or children.
Can the spread of diarrhoea be prevented?
The best way to prevent diarrhoea spreading is to maintain good personal hygiene, especially if you are sick.
- Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before eating or handling food and after using the toilet, cleaning contaminated surfaces or handling garbage. Wear gloves if available.
- If you have had diarrhoea and the cause has not been identified, you should not return to work, school or childcare until you have had no symptoms for 24 hours. You may need to stay home for 48 hours until the cause has been identified.
- If your work involves handling food or looking after children, the elderly or patients, do not return to work until 48 hours after the last episode of vomiting or diarrhoea.
- Clean surfaces with detergent and water.
- If you have been diagnosed with norovirus, or have diarrhoea and vomiting following contact with someone else with norovirus, disinfect any surface that may have been contaminated. The surfaces should be thoroughly cleaned, first with soap and water, and then with a disinfectant. Wear gloves when you are cleaning up the vomit or diarrhoea and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
- Immediately remove and wash clothing or bedding contaminated with diarrhoea or vomit separately.
- Do not share personal items — use your own personal items, such as towels, toothbrushes, flannels or face cloths.
- Avoid handling or preparing food for others if you have vomiting or diarrhoea until 48 hours after the symptoms stop. This includes at home and in the food industry.
- To prevent the spread of infection, do not go swimming in a public pool for 2 weeks after your last episode of diarrhoea or vomiting.
- While you are unwell you should keep away from people who can easily pick up infections, such as newborn babies, pregnant women, older people and those with a lowered immune system.
If you are travelling, avoid diarrhoea by eating only hot, well-cooked foods and avoiding raw fruits and vegetables. You should drink only bottled water, soda, beer or wine served in its original container and avoid tap water and ice cubes.
You don’t need to starve yourself if you have diarrhoea — for example you can eat regular meals that include plain biscuits, potatoes, rice or toast. Try and avoid caffeine, alcohol, fatty food, very sweet or high fibre foods. Dairy products may also aggravate the diarrhoea because of the lactose content. Yoghurt may help with the diarrhoea by replacing the bacteria the bowel needs to function normally.
It’s very important to stay hydrated since you lose a lot of fluid when you have diarrhoea.
- Drink plenty of clear fluids (dilute 1 part juice to 4 parts water). Avoid undiluted fruit juice or soft drinks.
- Re-hydration drinks are available over the counter from your local pharmacy and from some supermarkets. These drinks provide the correct balance of water, sugar and salt that your body needs. Follow the instructions on the packaging.
- Sports drinks and energy drinks should be avoided as a rehydration fluid option. They have a high sugar content that does not assist with rehydration.
If you are breastfeeding you should continue to breastfeed and make sure you drink plenty of fluids to avoid getting dehydrated. Maintain good hygiene and speak to your midwife or doctor for further advice.
Diarrhoea can affect the contraceptive pill (both the combined pill and mini contraceptive pill) so it becomes less effective at preventing pregnancy. You should take extra care such as by using condoms. The pill may not be as effective as normal for at least 1 week following diarrhoea, so you should continue taking extra precautions during that period too.
Are there complications of diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea can cause dehydration. This is particularly dangerous in babies, children and the elderly and must be treated promptly.
Other questions you might have
How long should you stay out of the pool after diarrhoea?
You should wait at least 2 weeks after you have fully recovered from diarrhoea before swimming in a pool. This will help you to avoid spreading potential illnesses to other people.
I’ve had diarrhoea for a week. What should I do?
If you have persistent diarrhoea for more than a few days, you should see your doctor.
Resources and support
If you need to know more about diarrhoea, or to get advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week.
Health Translations hosts a number of translated factsheets on conditions related to diarrhoea.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: July 2019