Diarrhoea is typically a symptom of a bowel infection which is characterised by loose and watery stools three or more times a day. The condition occurs when the lining of the intestine actively secretes fluids or is unable to absorb fluids.
Symptoms And Causes Of Diarrhoea
Patients may find that their diarrhoea is accompanied by the following symptoms;
- Painful cramps in the abdomen
- Feeling nauseous
- A high temperature
- Feelings of generalised weakness
Diarrhoea can be caused by numerous different factors such as;
- Viral, bacterial or parasitic infections
- A change in diet
- Intolerance to certain foods, such as lactose
- Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
- Side effects of medicines, such as antibiotics or diabetes medications
Medical conditions such as:
- Irritable Bowel Disease (IBS)
- Coeliac disease
- Inflammatory bowel diseases (e.g., ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
- Malabsorption problems (e.g., as a result of pancreatic problems)
- As a result of surgery (e.g., when part of the bowel has been removed)
It is possible for diarrhoea to be contagious as viruses are passed between people, or when food or water which is contaminated by viruses or bacteria is consumed. Young children are more likely to suffer from diarrhoea resulting from a result of a viral infection. Rotavirus used to be a common cause however since the introduction of the rotavirus vaccine, the risk of contracting this disease and suffering from severe gastroenteritis has decreased.
Patients who are very young or elderly are at a higher risk of becoming dehydrated and may require medical attention as a result of diarrhoea. Signs of dehydration include;
- Dry mouth and tongue
- Children appearing drowsy and ‘floppy’
- Passing little to no urine
- Sunken eyes
- Loss of the elasticity of the skin
- Weight loss
- Increase in thirst
Self-Care And Treatment Of Diarrhoea
Patients who have diarrhoea are advised to drink plenty of fluids such as water or oral rehydration fluids. Drinks which have high sugar contents, such as fruit juices, soft drinks, and sports drinks should be avoided as they can worsen diarrhoea. If the patient is a young baby, breastfeeding and formula feeding should be continued as normal.
It is also recommended that as soon as the patient feels that they can, they should consume dry and bland foods which contain carbohydrates. Foods such as mashed potatoes, pasta, rice and bread are encouraged. Grains, uncooked vegetables, fatty and spicy foods should be avoided. Some patients may find that they are unable to tolerate dairy foods, in which case milk may have to be gradually reintroduced once the diarrhoea has settled.
Remember that the condition can be contagious, so washing hands before eating and preparing food as well as after using the toilet are essential.
Treatment options include oral rehydration fluids and anti-diarrhoeal medicines.
Oral rehydration fluids work by preventing and treating dehydration as they replace lost water and electrolytes. They should be the first choice in preventing and treating dehydration, especially in young and elderly patients. Oral rehydration fluids are available in a variety of options, such as sachets, effervescent tablets and pre-mixed solutions. These contain a special mixture of electrolytes which cannot be restored by drinking water alone. Patients should be encouraged to drink small, frequent sips.
Anti-diarrhoeal medications can help to reduce bowel movements by slowing the gut. Ideally, anti-diarrhoeal medications should be used with oral rehydration fluids, so that patient recovery is faster. However, they are not safe for use in treating diarrhoea in children and pregnant women. Side effects of anti-diarrhoeal medications include drowsiness and even constipation.
It is advised patients see their doctor if diarrhoea lasts for more than two days, or is accompanied by extreme vomiting where the patient is having difficulty in keeping down fluids.