Diarrhoea is the term describing the regular passing of loose or watery stools, or passing more frequently than an individual is used to.

In the UK, the condition is very common and usually not a cause for concern. Loose stools are often a symptom of a bowel infection. This can be contracted through contaminated food, water or spread through illness.

According to UNICEF, diarrhoea causes 9% of all deaths worldwide among children under the age of five. This is usually due to resulting dehydration. Death usually occurs in less economically developed countries, where droughts are more common and clean water is limited.

This fact-sheet will explore the causes and treatment of diarrhoea. We will look at a “diarrhoea diet” and what foods to avoid, as well as learning how a nutritionist can help.

Diarrhoea is one of the most common symptoms of a digestive problem. While there are many causes of diarrhoea, gastroenteritis is the most common.

Gastroenteritis (bowel infection) is commonly caused by:

  • Bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli). This is often transferred through eating contaminated food.
  • A virus caught through other people, such as norovirus.
  • Parasites such as giardiasis, which can be picked up through consuming contaminated water.

It is common for an individual to catch these infections when they are travelling abroad. Diarrhoea can also be the result of a food allergy, medication, stress and anxiety or a condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Common symptoms include:

  • loose, watery stools
  • headache
  • bloating
  • lower abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • loss of appetite
  • weight-loss.

Most people will experience diarrhoea at some point in their lives and normally it will clear up after a few days. However, it can lead to dehydration so it is important for the individual to ensure they are drinking water regularly. It is particularly important to ensure babies and young children do not become dehydrated when suffering with the condition.

If a person is suffering frequent diarrhoea or if they are experiencing symptoms for longer than a week, it is recommended they visit their GP.

Diet and diarrhoea

A balanced diet is particularly important in maintaining the health of the digestive system. But when suffering from loose stools, it can be difficult to know what to eat, what to avoid and whether to eat at all. For example, while a high-fibre diet is usually recommended for lowering cholesterol and maintaining bowel regularity, it can make some cases worse.

When experiencing diarrhoea it is recommended that certain foods be avoided until symptoms improve. It is advisable that the individual discusses the condition with a GP before making any dietary changes.

Foods to avoid

  • high-fibre cereals such as bran flakes
  • fatty or fried foods
  • pickled or spicy foods
  • caffeine and alcohol.

A "diarrhoea diet"

When experiencing diarrhoea, many experts suggest eating solid food as soon as you feel you can. It is recommended when suffering with the condition, you eat small, light meals throughout the day. According to the NHS, salty foods are a good option for a diarrhoea diet. Other good examples include:

  • bananas
  • rice
  • soup
  • boiled vegetables
  • lentils.

If you are struggling to eat or are vomiting after eating, ensure to stay hydrated. One of the most important treatments of diarrhoea is avoiding dehydration. You need to replace the nutrients you have lost. While sipping regularly on water is vital, it is important to be consuming fluids that replace the sugar, salt and potassium that has also been lost as a result of diarrhoea. These fluids may include watered-down fruit juice, clear soups and herbal teas.

It is important to remember that when suffering from the condition, you avoid fizzy drinks and caffeine, as these can make symptoms worse.

How a nutritionist can help

Diarrhoea is often a symptom of a bowel infection after contracting a virus or bacteria through food, water or travelling abroad. While this form of diarrhoea will often clear up after two to three days, some people will experience loose stools more frequently.

Persistent diarrhoea could be the result of a range of conditions, including:

Diarrhoea may also be a side effect to an allergy or any medication you are taking, such as antibiotics or laxatives. If you are concerned or your diarrhoea is lasting for longer than a week, it is advised you speak to your GP.

Identifying the cause

If you wish to visit your GP, you may be asked a series of questions regarding your bowel movements and your health. These may include:

  • How often do you experience symptoms?
  • Have you dined out or travelled abroad recently?
  • Have you been feeling stressed or anxious?
  • Are you taking any medication?

Depending on your symptoms, your GP may also require you to provide a stool sample, a blood sample or you may need to undergo a rectal examination. These may be needed in order to test for any underlying conditions.

Those who suffer frequent diarrhoea may feel helpless, isolated and embarrassed to admit the problem. If you are diagnosed with a condition such as IBS, coeliac disease or Crohn’s disease, a nutritionist may be able to help.

During the initial consultation, a nutritionist may ask you to explain your symptoms. This may include details about your bowel movements. While this can be embarrassing, it is important to explain how you are feeling so that they can understand what triggers the problem. They may also ask you to complete a food diary each time you suffer diarrhoea. This way they can look at the food you eat, when you eat it and if the loose bowel movements are a symptom of an allergy or intolerance.

If the diarrhoea is a symptom of a long-term condition, a nutritionist will work with you to create a specialised diet plan. They will offer guidance and support so that you can regain a sense of control over the situation. Nutritionists can also offer support in the way of private laboratory testing such as stool tests and food intolerance/allergy tests.

A nutrition professional will understand how you feel. They will know how detrimental conditions such as diarrhoea can be to quality of life and self-esteem. As a result of this, they will do all they can to help you.

Diarrhoea treatment

When waiting for the virus to pass, it is important to continue drinking fluids and to eat when you can.

While there isn’t a quick-solve diarrhoea treatment, painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may be advised. These will help to relieve any headaches or fevers you may be experiencing. If you are showing symptoms of dehydration, your GP may suggest a diarrhoea treatment in the form of oral rehydration solutions (ORS). These are commonly suggested if you are classed as “at risk”, unwell or elderly.

Living with diarrhoea

Living with diarrhoea can be an upsetting, frustrating and embarrassing time. If you are unwell, it can occur at any time, whether at work, at home or in public. It can often make a person feel helpless and out of control. The important thing to do when suffering diarrhoea is to rest. It can be stressful and exhausting as you are losing fluid and often unable to eat much. 

If you are unwell, it is important to take some time out to recover and avoid spreading illness to others. Consider asking a friend or family member to help out with housework, the cooking or taking the children to school.

Sometimes life has to go on even if you aren’t feeling your best. While sufferers would rather be at home, it is not always possible. If you have to continue with your daily activities, take a moment to prepare yourself. Find the nearest toilets and continue to sip on water throughout the day.

Children and diarrhoea

It can be worrying for a parent if a child is suffering from diarrhoea. Children of any age can catch a virus or bacteria-related infection. If they appear dehydrated, are vomiting or have had more than six episodes of diarrhoea in one day, it is advised you contact your GP.

If the child is between one and five, the loose, watery stools should have subsided within five to seven days and very seldom persists beyond two weeks. Be sure to give your child plenty of water (even if they are vomiting) to ensure they do not become dehydrated.

Content reviewed by registered nutritional therapist, Caroline Keighley. All content displayed on Nutritionist Resource is provided for general information purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for advice given by your GP or any other healthcare professional.

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