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Slideshow: Diarrhoea myths and facts

Diarrhoea is common

Everyone's had an occasion where they've had to find a toilet quickly. Having to run to the toilet is not fun and having three or more liquid poos (stools) a day means you have diarrhoea. Whether your diarrhoea is a short-term upset or highlights a more serious health concern, read on to find out more.

Diarrhoea can be serious

Fact. Diarrhoea can cause dehydration, which can be especially serious in babies, younger children and older adults.Signs of dehydration include:

  • Thirst
  • Dry mouth and lips
  • Drinking plenty but passing only small amounts of urine
  • Skin 'tenting' – when skin on the back of the hand is pinched and it doesn't 'spring back' immediately
  • In babies, a sunken, soft spot on top of the head
  • Crying with no tears
  • Mental confusion or excessive sleepiness in older adults.

Rehydration powders made up with water help rehydrate the person with diarrhoea. Your GP or pharmacist can advise on taking these. Sports drinks are not suitable as rehydration fluids for diarrhoea.

A flu jab prevents 'gastric flu'

Myth. 'Gastric flu', also sometimes called 'stomach flu', is not the same as seasonal flu, which is caused by the influenza (flu) virus, and which you can be vaccinated against. The influenza virus usually causes a fever and body aches but rarely causes diarrhoea. It affects your lungs and airways while 'gastric flu', or gastroenteritis, affects your gut and is caused by a bacteria or virus infection and usually causes diarrhoea.

You should shun fatty foods

Myth. There's no reason to avoid fatty foods unless your diarrhoea is due to digestive problems but, in reality, most people don't feel like a 'fry up' when they're feeling unwell. If you have norovirus (winter vomiting bug), which causes both diarrhoea and vomiting, then you're probably best to avoid fried foods and pastries as fat slows down tummy emptying and gives you more to bring back if you vomit.

Medicines and diarrhoea

Fact. Some medicines can cause diarrhoea as a side effect. The most common include:

  • Some antibiotics
  • Drugs to block stomach acid (proton-pump inhibitors, H2 antagonists)
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Antidepressants (SSRIs)
  • Cholesterol lowering drugs (statins, high dose niacin)
  • Milk of magnesia
  • Some chemotherapy drugs.

If you usually take laxatives to prevent constipation stop these whilst you have diarrhoea. Herbal medicines containing cascara (buckthorn), senna and slippery elm are best avoided. Seek medical advice if a medication gives you diarrhoea.

Sugary stuff makes diarrhoea worse

Fact. Some sugars and sugar substitutes may contribute to diarrhoea. Sugar in drinks is unlikely to make your diarrhoea worse. Fruit juices are rich in fructose, a fruit sugar behind most toddler diarrhoea. To avoid fructose-diarrhoea in all age groups, serve fruit juice with carbohydrates as part of a meal – and limit fruit juice to a small glass each day. Taking fruit juice by itself causes diarrhoea if your body finds it hard to absorb. Sugar-free medicines for children are kind to teeth but if the sweetener is sorbitol as little as one teaspoon can cause diarrhoea. Speak to your pharmacist about alternatives for your child.

Teething sparks diarrhoea

Myth. While teething can cause changes in your child's poo, there's little evidence that it causes diarrhoea. If your baby develops diarrhoea or a high temperature and you are concerned, seek medical advice.

High fibre food can help

Fact. Fibre isn't just for constipation - it can help manage the symptoms of diarrhoea too. Soluble gel-type fibre can make poo firmer as well as feed the helpful bacteria that keep bowel function healthy. However, a word of warning - bacteria produce gas when they digest soluble fibre. So, if excessive wind is a concern, reintroduce peas, beans, lentils and oats back into your diet in smaller amounts than you'd usually have, until symptoms subside. If your ongoing diarrhoea is a result of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), limiting these foods and others rich in FODMAPs (fermentable carbohydrates and fibres) may help. Ask your GP for a dietitian referral.

Coffee makes diarrhoea worse

Fact. Many people have the urge to poo after a coffee. It's not a health concern but it might be a lifestyle problem if you need to rush out in the mornings. Caffeine in coffee can stimulate the bowel to move but so can other substances in coffee. Changing to a decaffeinated coffee may help control your poo if you're sensitive to caffeine. If a milky latte or cappuccino is your favourite coffee type, the milk sugar lactose may be more of an issue. Swap your usual for an Americano with a dash of milk to see if the milk - or the coffee – is causing your poo problem. Or change to tea, instead. If it is the coffee or milk causing a problem, symptoms would improve within a day or two.

Take medication right away

Myth. Medicines to control diarrhoea slow down bowel function, giving more time for water to be absorbed and your poo to become firm. But if your diarrhoea is a result of gastroenteritis, it's better to let nature get rid of the problem, rather than hold it in. Winter vomiting bug (norovirus) is self-limiting which means you will recover naturally within 2-3 days. Remember that anti-diarrhoeal drugs control the problem, not deal with the cause. If your child has diarrhoea after sugar-free medicines, ask your pharmacist about an alternative. Don't give babies or children diarrhoea medicine unless your doctor specifically prescribes it.

Washing hands may keep you well

Fact. Poor hygiene can pass gastroenteritis around. Research shows that washing your hands can reduce the risk of illness linked to diarrhoea by almost half. Always use soap and water after going to the toilet, especially if you're around someone with diarrhoea or when you're abroad in an area with poor hygiene. Scrub for as long as it takes you to sing the 'Happy Birthday' song twice.  

Yoghurt may ease diarrhoea

Fact. Yoghurt is one of those traditional remedies for diarrhoea. Yoghurt contains probiotics - friendly bacteria found in yoghurt and in one-a-day probiotic bacteria drinks. Probiotic yoghurts and 'shot' drinks may help speed recovery and shorten duration of diarrhoea in gastroenteritis. Probiotics aren't as successful in treating diarrhoea caused by Crohn's disease, although they may be of some benefit in ulcerative colitis. A few studies have found that probiotic supplements may prevent diarrhoea caused by antibiotics, but research gave mixed results.

Understand more

Understanding more about diarrhoea will help you manage symptoms to help recovery. But if you have any of the following, seek medical advice:

  • Regular blood-stained poo
  • Poo that is brownish-black in colour, and you are not on iron tablets
  • Waking up from sleep with the need to open your bowels
  • Poo that often has an orange, yellow or green colour present
  • Severe pain linked with your bowel symptoms.
Taming your diarrhoea