What causes diarrhoea and when should I see a doctor?

RUNNING to the toilet with just seconds to spare?

It affects most people from time to time – but is diarrhoea something you should be worried about and what causes it?

Bowel health in both kids and adults all depends on how well the digestive or gastrointestinal systems are working.

Community pharmacist, Sultan Dajani explained that the bowel is working properly, it can digest food effectively and eliminate the waste (i.e. the poo) easily and at least four times a week.

He said things can go wrong in the large bowel and the stool becomes too soft and liquid in consistency – which is a sign of diarrhoea.

The 8 times you shouldn't ignore diarrhoea

We all have days where we use the toilet a little more than usual.

Sometimes looser stools can be the result of a heavy night drinking, nerves or from eating food that was slightly "off".

But there are many different causes of diarrhoea, from Covid-19 to anxiety, that may warrant further investigation.

Gastroenteritis

The most common cause of diarrhoea is gastroenteritis, the NHS says, usually caused by a bacterial or viral tummy bug. 

Gastroenteritis is very common, particularly in children.

It usually clears itself up in a week, but unfortunately the only treatment is resting at home.

Viruses such as the rotavirus and the norovirus can both cause gastroenteritis.

If you are unlucky enough to have caught this type of diarrhoea, you may also have sudden abdominal cramps and vomiting.

Covid-19

Some people also experience diarrhoea with Covid-19, appearing to get more common with age.

Around one in 10 children get diarrhoea, reaching 30 per cent of those aged over 35, according to the ZOE Covid Symptom Study app.

It's important that if you think you have caught Covid that you get tested and isolate.

E. coli

Bacteria found in food can also give you the trots and this includes campylobacter and Escherichia coli (E. coli).

This is a type of gastroenteritis and typically is not cause for much concern.

You can be sickened by E. coli from eating a slightly undercooked hamburger or from swallowing a mouthful of contaminated pool water.

Some people are at risk of more severe illness that affects the kidneys, including young children and people with weakened immune systems.

Parasite

Diarrhoea can also be caused by a parasite, which is found across the world.

The most common type is giardia infection, caused by a bug found in lakes and streams, public water supplies and swimming pools.

Cyclospora is caused by a tiny parasite consumed by eating raw fruit and vegetables that is contaminated with human faeces.

The NHS says people travelling abroad most typically get this type of infection.

When you should seek help

Usually diarrhoea is something you have to ride out, as it will get better on its own.

You must stay off school or work if you have been unwell for at least two days, as this suggests you have a bug that could be spread.

A pharmacist can help with medicines to relieve diarrhoea and it's associated symptoms, like dehydration.

But call a pharmacy or contact them online before going in person. You can get medicines delivered or ask someone to collect them.

The NHS says to call 111 if:

  • there is blood in diarrhoea, or you are bleeding from the bottom
  • diarrhoea has lasted more than seven days, or vomiting more than two days
  • you have signs of dehydration (fewer wet nappies in young children) despite using rehydration sachets
  • you can't keep fluid down
  • you are worried about a baby under 12 months
  • your child has stopped feeding (breast or bottle)

Call 999 if you or your child:

  • vomit blood or have vomit that looks like ground coffee
  • have green or yellow-green vomit
  • might have swallowed something poisonous
  • have a stiff neck and pain when looking at bright lights
  • have a sudden, severe headache or stomach ache

Travellers diarrhoea

Diarrhoea can strike at the worst of times while on holiday or travelling.

It's caused by consuming contaminated food or water because the sanitary practices in other countries may not be as robust.

Food allergies or intolerance

Some people are unable to tolerate certain types of food – such as dairy or gluten.

Known as a food intolerance, symptoms like diarrhoea, wind and potentially rashes occur around a few hours after eating the problem food.

Meanwhile a food allergy is down to a faulty reaction by the immune system, and can trigger wheezing and a rash very quickly after eating the food.

It can be life-threatening.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a mental health condition, but one of its physical symptoms may be diarrhoea.

The brain and gut are connected, so when you're distressed, chemical messages from the brain can lead to the gut responding with stomach-churning symptoms, like diarrhoea.

IBS

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a long term health condition that can severely impact the life of those with it.

The main symptoms are diarrhoea or constipation, as IBS impairs the digestive system.

The NHS says the exact cause is unknown – it's been linked to things like food passing through the gut too quickly or too slowly, oversensitive nerves in the gut, stress and a family history of IBS.

How to treat diarrhoea

It's not convenient for anyone to be running to the toilet all day and there are some ways that you can treat diarrhoea.

Luckily most cases clear up on their own and there is no need for any treatment.

But, because of the amount of fluid passing through your body it's likely that you will be left dehydrated.

Until you are better you should try and take small slow sips of water.

You can also try and use an oral rehydration solution which are usually available from your local pharmacy.

As soon as you feel like you can, you should try and eat solid foods.

In order to prevent spreading the infection to anyone else you should stay at home for 48 hours after the last episode of diarrhoea.

You should see a doctor if you also have blood in your stool and you are suffering from persistent vomiting.

If you've lost weight and your stools are dark or black then you should also see your GP as this could be a sign of bowel cancer.

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