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What is diarrhoea? What causes it? And how can you prevent it?

What is diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea is when you have frequent and watery stools. Although diarrhoea is often harmless, it can lead to dehydration, so it’s best to keep a close eye on the very young or elderly if they have it.

What causes diarrhoea?

It’s usually your body reacting to a virus or infection. It can be contracted through eating or drinking infected food or water. It can also be contracted by touching someone infected and then not washing your hands. Common causes include:

  • viruses: like the norovirus or rotavirus
  • bacteria: such as Campylobacter and Escherichia coli (E. coli), which is usually from contaminated food
  • parasites: which are often ingested from contaminated water like Giardia, the parasite that causes giardiasis.

What’s the most important thing I should know about diarrhoea?

Dehydration can be the most harmful effect of diarrhoea. When someone is ill with diarrhoea they can lose fluids and electrolytes very quickly. Electrolytes are essential bodily salts and include sodium, chloride, potassium and bicarbonate.

young african nurse comforting female patient

The 3 stages of dehydration:

Stage 1: Early dehydration. This has no signs or symptoms.

Stage 2: Moderate dehydration. Symptoms include: thirst, restless or irritable behaviour, decreased skin elasticity and sunken eyes.

Stage 3: Severe dehydration. Symptoms include: shock, diminished consciousness, lack of urine, cool, moist extremities, a rapid and weak pulse, low or undetectable blood pressure and pale skin.

How can I treat diarrhoea and dehydration?

It’s vital to replenish lost fluids and electrolytes if you have diarrhoea. Oral rehydration salts (ORS) can help. They’re a mixture of salts and sugar that must be dissolved in clean water. Zinc supplements may also help as they can reduce the volume of your stools by 30%. See your doctor if you’re worried.

How can I protect myself and my family?

Use only safe water. All water – whether it is for drinking or cooking – needs to be boiled for one minute to kill any harmful germs.
Prepare food hygienically. Wash all fruit and vegetables with clean water. Make sure all bowls, plates and utensils are washed in boiling water.
Wash your hands regularly. This will help to kill any harmful germs before they can spread.

4 top tips to tackle diarrhoea

1. Wash your hands. If you wash your hands properly, according to the advice from the World Health Organisation, it should take as long as singing ‘Happy Birthday To You’ twice.
2. Keep clean. Washing regularly is your best defence. Make sure that all food, food preparation areas, and utensils are clean.
3. Keep hydrated. To avoid losing a dangerous amount of fluid during a bout of diarrhoea, make sure you drink plenty of fluids on a regular basis.
4. Seek help. If you’re not getting better or if your symptoms are severe, contact your doctor immediately