Faeces are waste materials which the body does not need. They are discharged from the body along with bacteria that live in the gut. Diarrhoea is the frequent and sometimes urgent passing of liquid faeces. Diarrhoea can also be accompanied by abdominal pain, wind, feelings of sickness, vomiting and a high temperature.

It is very common but can be dangerous if it affects babies or the elderly.


Diarrhoea can be chronic or acute. Chronic diarrhoea can recur over months or years and is usually caused by an underlying digestive disorder or medical problem. Acute diarrhoea is short-lived and can be caused by a number of different factors

  • diet. Contaminated food or water can lead to diarrhoea. Eating one-off spicy dishes, very rich foods or having an evening of heavy drinking can also cause diarrhoea if the body is not used to these foods. Food allergy can also lead to diarrhoea


Certain medicines, especially antibiotics, can cause diarrhoea. Medicine labels or leaflets should list any possible side effects.

Change in routine

Anxiety, stress or a change in routine such as going on holiday can all lead to a change in bowel habits.Avoiding DiarrhoeaWash your hands thoroughly before eating or preparing food and after going to the toilet. Follow food safety guidelines at all times. A separate leaflet is available from this pharmacy on food poisoning and food safety.


During a bout of diarrhoea water and salts are lost from the body. To replace them, drink plenty of fluid until the diarrhoea subsides. Fluid can consist of uncontaminated water (bottled or boiled and cooled if you are abroad) or an oral rehydration solution (ORS) which can be bought from a pharmacy. In an emergency you can make your own oral rehydration solution by dissolving one teaspoon of salt and eight teaspoons of sugar in one litre of boiling water or fruit juice. Leave the solution to cool then drink half a litre of solution every hour or quarter of a litre every half an hour until the diarrhoea clears up. Keep the solution in a refrigerator and remake it every day. Home-made solutions should only be used in an emergency because the salt and sugar content may be inaccurate. The concentration of salt and sugar to water is vitally important especially in babies, young children and the elderly.Antidiarrhoeal treatments are usually 'antimotility drugs', 'antispasmodics' or 'adsorbents'. Antimotility drugs such as codeine, kaolin and morphine, co-phenotrope and loperamide slow down the rate at which waste travels through the body. Antispasmodics control muscle spasm easing the pain of stomach cramps. Adsorbents absorb water from the waste products making the faeces firmer. Diarrhoea treatments should not be overused as they can lead to constipation, they should only be used until normal routine returns.

When To See A Doctor

If you develop a sudden attack of diarrhoea, you should consult your doctor if you are frail, over 75 years of age or have a long-term illness. You should also inform your doctor if you have a baby or child who develops diarrhoea.Consult a doctor if the diarrhoea is severe and does not clear up after 48 hours or if you experience any of the following: blood in your faeces, a temperature above 38ÂșC, exhaustion, extreme thirst, feelings of sickness or a swollen stomach.If your baby has diarrhoea and is drowsy, has a glazed expression, doesn't respond to stimulation and is crying more than usual, tell your doctor at once.Tell your doctor if you develop diarrhoea after returning from a trip abroad.

Additional Information

For additional information about diarrhoea, contact the Digestive Disorders Foundation, 3 St Andrews Place, London, NW1 4LB. Tel: 0171 486 0341. Fax: 0171 224 2012. Website address: www.digestivedisorders.org.uk.

Women should remember that diarrhoea and sickness can stop the contraceptive pill working properly. If you are a woman taking the pill, you must take extra contraceptive precautions while you have diarrhoea and for seven days afterwards. If you are taking the combined pill, and the seven days finish during the pill-free week, start the next pack without a break. A doctor or pharmacist will be able to explain this in more detail.