What is diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea (also spelt diarrhea) — loose, watery stools occurring more than three times in one day — is a common problem that usually lasts a day or two and goes away on its own without any special treatment.
However, persistent diarrhoea can be a sign of other problems.
Diarrhoea can be described as either acute or chronic.
Acute diarrhoea is common and affects nearly everyone at some point. It can be caused by a virus or bacterial infection and should go away within a few days. Everyone is different so it might last longer for some people more than others.
You should see your doctor if:
- The diarrhoea lasts for more than two days in an adult, or for more than 24 hours in a baby
- You get dehydrated
- You also have a fever
- You have severe pain in your abdomen or rectum
- The diarrhoea is bloody or black
Chronic diarrhoea continues for a longer period of time, usually more than two weeks. Chronic diarrhoea can be a sign of an inflammatory bowel condition, for example Crohn’s disease, or a chronic bowel infection.
A common cause of diarrhoea in both children and adults is gastroenteritis, which is an infection of the bowel.
In adults, diarrhoea caused by gastroenteritis will usually clear up in two to four days when the infection has cleared. If it lasts for more than a two weeks it may be a sign of a more serious condition and should be investigated by your doctor, especially if there is blood or pus in your faeces.
Diarrhoea can cause dehydration, which means the body lacks enough fluid to function properly. Dehydration is particularly dangerous in children and the elderly, and it must be treated promptly.
While statistics are not kept on how many people have diarrhoea in Australia, it's a serious problem in poorer countries around the world and is the second leading cause of death in children under five years of age, killing about 525,000 children under 5 every year.
Should I keep my child home from school?
Here’s a list of common childhood illnesses, including diarrhoea, and their recommended exclusion periods.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your diarrhoea, check your symptoms with healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Last reviewed: July 2017