Diarrhoea (or diarrhea) is when you pass looser or more frequent stools than you do normally. It is one of the main symptoms of gastroenteritis, the other is vomiting. Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the stomach or intestine as a result of a bacterial or viral infection.  Diarrhoea usually last for 2-4 days without the need for treatment, however severe diarrhoea may be life threatening. This is due to fluid loss in watery diarrhoea, particularly in infants and young children, the malnourished and people with weakened immunity. Sadly, diarrhoeal disease globally is the second leading cause of death in children under the age of 5, being responsible for approximately 760, 000 child deaths each year.

The good news is, diarrhoea can be prevented. Through the provision of safe drinking water, improved sanitation (including provision of proper facilities for the safe disposal of human waste) and by practicing hand hygiene by washing with soap and water, the risk of diarrhoeal disease can be significantly reduced. 


What causes diarrhoea?

In general, diarrhoea infections are spread through the consumption of contaminated food and water (hence diarrhoea after eating), by dirty hands, or direct contact with faecal matter. Many different types of bacteria viruses and parasites can cause gastroenteritis and subsequently diarrhoea. Some common ones include:

  • Bacteria. E.g. Salmonella or Escherichia (E. coli)
  • Viruses. E.g. Norovirus or rotavirus
  • Parasites. E.g. Giardia intestinalis


What are the symptoms?

You may experience one or more of the following:

  • Watery stools
  • Upset stomach or cramps
  • Urgent need to use the toilet
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dehydration

Bouts of diarrhoea usually clear up after a few days, however, during this time it’s important not to become dehydrated.

Drink plenty of fluids. You may want to consider taking an oral rehydration solution (ORS). These usually come in sachets and are dissolved in water to replace the minerals and salts that you have lost.

Try to eat as normal, but keep meals short and light. Avoid rich, spicy, salty or sugary foods. For babies with diarrhoea, you should continue to feed/breastfeed them as normal.

For adults, if you have any more severe symptoms or your diarrhoea lasts longer than a week, speak to your healthcare professional.

Prevention Tips

Safe drinking water:

Contaminated water is one of the most significant factors contributing to infectious diseases in developing countries. Make sure you have access to safe water and if storing water in your home be sure to keep the water vessel covered, don’t allow anyone to directly touch the water or drink from the vessel and thoroughly rinse the vessel after every use. If you are unsure of the quality of your water, treat it before drinking.


Toilet hygiene:

Using a toilet for the safe disposal of human waste (urine and faeces) is an essential part of the preventing the spread of germs that can cause diarrhoea. Always use a toilet which is connected to the sewerage system or on-site sanitation system (e.g. septic tank or seepage pit). Flush the toilet after use to make sure all faecal matter is removed and use a toilet cleaner and brush to remove any build-up on the inner surfaces of the toilet. It is also important to keep the area around the toilet clean and regularly touched surfaces (such as the seat, lid, flush handle should be cleaned and disinfected regularly). Keep the toilet covered to prevent the transfer of germs by flies.

Cloths used to clean the toilet and toilet areas should not be used for cleaning other areas of the home.

Food hygiene:

Good food hygiene will help to prevent gastroenteritis and diarrhoea from food poisoning.

  • Clean and disinfect food preparation surfaces: After preparing food (especially raw meat, fish or eggs), clean and disinfect any kitchen surfaces that you’ve used. Dirty utensils, cutlery and crockery can be cleaned with detergent and hot water
  • Store raw and cooked food separately
  • Cook food thoroughly and evenly
  • Properly refrigerate food to stop the growth of bacteria

Take extra care when someone in your family is suffering from diarrhoea.

  • Avoid sharing cutlery, utensils, towels and other personal care items such as flannels and sponges with other household members
  • Those suffering from diarrhoea should avoid preparing food for others
  • Clean and disinfect your toilet, including the toilet seat and toilet flush, after each bout of diarrhoea
  • Remember to wash your hands thoroughly and regularly with soap and water
  • Wait at least 48 hours after symptoms have cleared up before returning to work or school

Myths and Truths

Q. “Should you drink less fluids when you have diarrhoea?”

This is false – when you have diarrhoea it’s important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Frequently drink small sips of water even if you are also experiencing vomiting, making sure to boil/clean water before drinking.

Q. “Should you be careful what you eat whilst you are experiencing diarrhoea?”

There are mixed opinions over what and when you should eat whilst you have diarrhoea. Most experts tend to agree that you should eat solid food. Meals should be light, small and avoid spicy, heavy or fatty foods. If you feel you cannot eat, it should not do you any harm.