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What is diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea (also spelt diarrhea) — loose, watery stools occurring more than 3 times in 1 day — is a common problem that usually lasts a day or 2 and goes away on its own without 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 have a frequent, urgent need to go to the toilet.
Persistent diarrhoea can be a sign of other problems.
What symptoms are related to diarrhoea?
Other common symptoms associated with diarrhoea are:
In adults, the symptoms of diarrhoea usually improve within 2 to 4 days. The time that diarrhoea usually lasts for in particular infections can be:
- rotavirus — 3 to 7 days
- norovirus — 1 to 3 days
- campylobacter and salmonella bacterial infections — up to 10 days
- giardiasis (infection with the Giardia intestinalis parasite) — several weeks
When should I see a doctor about diarrhoea?
If diarrhoea lasts for more than a few days 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 it.
Always see your doctor if you experience serious symptoms. Babies, young children and the elderly with diarrhoea need prompt medical attention.
You should see your doctor if:
- there is blood or mucus in your stools
- you have a high temperature (38°C and above)
- you have had diarrhoea without any improvement for 24 hours in children, 48 hours in adults
- you have recently been treated in hospital
- you have recently been treated with antibiotics
- the diarrhoea is very dark and smelly
- you have bad pain in your abdomen or back passage
- the diarrhoea has blood in it
- you have diarrhoea and persistent vomiting
- you have no appetite and are losing weight
- you are bleeding from your rectum (back passage)
- you passed large volumes of very watery diarrhoea, or your urine is very dark — you may be at risk of dehydration
- you have a chronic illness, for example diabetes
What causes diarrhoea?
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.
Chronic diarrhoea continues for a longer period of time, usually more than 2 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.
You can find more information about the underlying causes of diarrhoea here.
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 is to rest at home and don’t go to work or school while you are sick. If you are in pain, get advice on medicines you can take. Antibiotics are not usually given to treat diarrhoea.
Antidiarrhoeal 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.
Can diarrhoea be prevented?
The best way to prevent diarrhoea is to maintain good personal hygiene, especially if you are sick:
- Always wash your hands with soap and warm water before eating or handling food and after using the toilet, cleaning contaminated surfaces or handling garbage.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Diarrhoea self care
You don’t need to starve yourself if you have diarrhoea — eat regular meals.
It’s very important to stay hydrated as 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 (chemist) 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 high sugar content that does not assist with rehydration.
If you are breastfeeding you should continue to breastfeed your baby, but you should 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 pill). It can make the pill less effective at preventing pregnancy. Extra care must be taken if you wish to avoid pregnancy, such as using condoms. The effectiveness of the pill may not be back to normal for at least 1 week following diarrhoea, making it necessary to continue extra precautions.
Are there complications of diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea can cause dehydration. This is particularly dangerous in children and the elderly, and it must be treated promptly.
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).
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: July 2019