National Continence Helpline

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How does diarrhoea affect a person?

Diarrhoea is when bowel motions are watery, soft or mushy. Sometimes there can also be stomach cramps or pain and a sick feeling. Diarrhoea can cause a person a lot of stress because their bowel motions are hard to hold on to. Many people who have regalar diarrhoea:

  • avoid situations where they are not sure where they can find and use toilets quickly
  • are at risk of social isolation and depression.

When people with diarrhoea need to leave the house, they usually need to plan their trip carefully. They may need to:

  • take spare pads, plastic bags to throw away used pads, washing equipment, and spare clothes and underwear
  • wear a continence pad or pants, as well as underwear
  • look into where they are going using the National Public Toilet Map so they know where to find toilets
  • look for toilets when they first get somewhere so they know where to go if they need to
  • avoid public transport, in case they need to quickly get to a toilet.

What causes diarrhoea?

Short-term diarrhoea can be caused by:

  • food poisoning, lactose intolerance or infections
  • eating too much fruit
  • not eating enough fibre
  • eating certain foods (especially spicy, greasy or oily foods) or drinks (e.g. too much coffee).

Long-term diarrhoea can be caused by:

  • medical conditions, such as bile acid malabsorption, dumping syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, coeliac disease, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, hyperthyroidism
  • taking too many laxatives
  • taking some medicines, such as antibiotics or chemotherapy.

What should you do if a person you support has diarrhoea?

  • Start recording the bowel motions on a bowel diary using the Bristol Stool Chart.
  • Avoid food and drinks that cause problems - the person may need to visit a dietitian to work this out.
  • Increase fibre intake and make sure the person drinks more water.
  • Treat their constipation if they are constipated. Constipation sometimes causes an 'overflow' of wet bowel motions, which can be like diarrhoea.

Important cautions:

  • Don't restrict fluid intake. This won't help the diarrhoea and may cause dehydration.
  • Don't give the person medicines for their diarrhoea unless a doctor has prescribed it.

What can a health care professional do?

Book an appointment with a health care professional. They can:

  • diagnose and organise treatment for any medical conditions that are causing the diarrhoea
  • treat the diarrhoea, possibly involving some anti-diarrhoea medicines
  • adjust other medicines and supplements
  • provide pelvic floor muscle training to help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles.

Need more help? Call the National Continence Helpline on 18OO 33 OO 66 and talk to a continence  nurse advisor.

Extra Resources

Take the Quiz

Question 1

People with loose bowel motions:

should be told there's nothing to worry about

should be able to hold on until they reach a toilet

can become socially isolated and depressed

should avoid going out.

Question 2

Loose bowel motions are commonly caused by:

people relying on pads

going to the toilet 'just in case'

people ignoring the need to pass a bowel motion

food poisoning, lactose intolerance and infections.

Question 3

Long-term diarrhoea can be caused by:

taking too many laxatives

some medical conditions

some medicines

all of the above.

Question 4

Treatment and management of diarrhoea can include:

avoiding food and drinks that cause problems

buying some medicines from the supermarket to stop diarrhoea

restricting fluids

restricting fibre

This information is not a substitute for independent professional advice.