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Overview of Diarrhoea: Symptoms, causes, and treatment

Dr. Ajay KohliApr 19, 2024

Diarrhoea, a common disorder, usually resolves on its own. However, if it persists for long, it may cause complications like dehydration. Thus, persistent Diarrhoea must be treated medically. Read ahead to know more about this condition.




What is Diarrhoea?

One is said to have Diarrhoea if they pass watery and loose stools more than three times a day. Normally, Diarrhoea resolves on its own in a few days. However, if it persists, it may be due to a more serious underlying cause, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Gastroenteritis, or Celiac Disease. 

Travellers Diarrhoea: People who travel to other countries (especially developing countries) may consume food and water which is contaminated with bacteria and parasites. This may eventually lead to Traveller’s Diarrhoea. 

Signs and symptoms of Diarrhoea 

People may have just Diarrhoea, or this may be accompanied by the following symptoms. 

  • Bloating

  • Vomiting 

  • Stomach aches or abdominal cramps 

  • Mucus in stools

Diarrhoea is the main symptom of gastrointestinal infections. In this case, Diarrhoea may be accompanied by symptoms such as fever, fatigue, and light-headedness. Untreated Diarrhoea can cause complications like dehydration and malabsorption.

What causes Diarrhoea? 

The most common cause of Diarrhoea is viral gastroenteritis. Other causes include:

  1. Bacterial and parasitic infections

  2. Toxins in food

  3. Consuming food items that upset the digestive system

  4. Food allergies (lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance)

  5. Certain medications, such as antibiotics and antacids

  6. Digestive system disorders such as Irritable Bowel Disease, Crohn's Disease, and Ulcerative Colitis

  7. Radiation therapy

  8. Malabsorption syndrome

  9. Abdominal surgeries like appendectomy and gallbladder surgery

Types of Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea can be classified as follows.

  1. Acute Diarrhoea: This type is the most common type of Diarrhoea and lasts for 2 to 3 days and then goes away on its own. This is usually caused by viral or bacterial gastroenteritis that occurs due to having contaminated food. 

  2. Chronic Diarrhoea: This type of Diarrhoea lasts for over 4 weeks. Chronic Diarrhoea is caused by gastrointestinal conditions such as Crohn's Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Celiac Disease. 

Treatment for Diarrhoea 

Acute Diarrhoea can be treated with over-the-counter medications like loperamide and bismuth salicylate. These medications, however, are not recommended for people who have blood in the stools and/or fever. These symptoms may indicate infection. If Diarrhoea lasts for more than 2 days, you must consult a doctor.

If your Diarrhoea persists for long, your doctor may suggest any of the following treatments based on the possible underlying cause. 

  1. Antibiotics and anti-parasitics: If Diarrhoea is caused by an underlying infection, your doctor may recommend antimicrobial drugs to treat the infection. 

  2. Oral rehydration solution:  If you have dehydration and/or electrolyte imbalance, you may be advised to take ORS solution.

  3. Probiotics: Probiotics can help improve gut health and thus, treat Diarrhoea. 

Diagnosis of Diarrhoea

Your doctor would take a detailed history of your health condition to determine the severity of Diarrhoea and its probable causes. Your doctor may ask the following questions.

  1. How long have you had Diarrhoea?

  2. How often do you pass stools?

  3. Do you experience any other symptoms? 

  4. Do you find any colour changes in your stools? 

  5. What are the other health problems you have?

  6. What medications are you taking?

  7. Are you allergic to any kind of food?

  8. Have you recently travelled anywhere abroad? (to check for Traveller’s Diarrhoea)

During the physical examination, your doctor would check your vital signs and signs of dehydration, assess your abdomen for abdominal tenderness and check abdominal sounds. 

To confirm the underlying cause of Diarrhoea, your doctor might recommend one or more of the following tests.

  1. Stool tests: These tests are helpful to determine gastrointestinal health. Stool culture can be ordered to check for infections in the gastrointestinal system. 

  2. Colonoscopy: In this test, a long tube with a light source and camera fit at the end, is inserted into the colon through the rectum. This helps to check for abnormalities in the wall of the colon. This test also allows the collection of a small sample of the colon tissue for histopathological testing. 

  3. Blood tests: Blood tests are useful to check for abnormalities in the electrolyte and micronutrient levels which may indicate complications such as dehydration and malabsorption.

  4. Fasting tests: Your doctor may ask you to avoid certain foods such as dairy and gluten rich foods to check if you have food intolerance and your Diarrhoea responds to change in diet. 

How can I Prevent Diarrhoea? 

Following these measures can prevent Diarrhoea.

  1. Wash hands often with mild soap

  2. Sanitise hands frequently using alcohol-based sanitizers

  3. Cook food in a clean and safe way

  4. Avoid eating out as much as possible, especially from street vendors and food trucks

  5. Clean fruits and vegetables well before consuming them raw

  6. Avoid eating uncooked meat

When you are travelling, follow these measures to prevent Travellers’ Diarrhoea.

  1. Do not drink or brush your teeth with tap water

  2. Only drink pasteurised milk

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here’s a list of common queries related to Diarrhoea.

When do I need to go to a doctor for Diarrhoea?


You should consult a doctor if 

  • you have Diarrhoea for more than 2 days

  • you have blood in your stools

  • you show signs of dehydration

  • you have fever over 102-degree Fahrenheit

  • you have severe abdominal pain

  • you have passed stools more than 6 times in 1 day

  • you are frequently vomiting

How do antibiotics cause Diarrhoea?


Antibiotics like Clindamycin and Erythromycin interfere with the gut bacteria. They harm beneficial bacteria and may favour growth of bad bacteria. This may lead to Diarrhoea.

How do I know if I am dehydrated?


Dehydration is a common complication of Diarrhoea. If you feel thirsty all the time, have dry mouth, pause dark coloured urine, have reduced frequency of urination, feel fatigue and have dry skin, you are probably dehydrated. Any person suffering from Diarrhoea must increase their water intake to prevent dehydration.

How do I know if I have malabsorption?


Reduced appetite, bloating and passing gas, passing greasy and foul-smelling stools indicate that you may have malabsorption. If you experience such symptoms, please contact your doctor.

What should I avoid eating when I have Diarrhoea?


When you have Diarrhoea, you should avoid taking caffeinated drinks, alcohol, spicy foods, dairy products, foods rich in sugar, oily and greasy foods, beverages containing artificial sugar.




Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.


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