Diarrhoea or looseness of the bowels is increased frequency, fluidity or volume of bowel movements compared to usual. Most people have occasional attacks of acute diarrhoea, usually caused by contaminated food or water or excessive alcohol consumption. Such attacks normally clear up within a day or two, whether or not they are treated. Chronic diarrhoea, on the other hand, may be the result of a serious intestinal disorder or of more general disease.

The commonest cause of acute diarrhoea is food poisoning, the organisms involved usually being STAPHYLOCOCCUS, CLOSTRIDIUM bacteria, salmonella, E. coli O157 (see ESCHERICHIA), CAMPYLOBACTER, cryptosporidium, and Norwalk virus. A person may also acquire infective diarrhoea as a result of droplet infections from adenoviruses or echoviruses. Interference with the bacterial flora of the intestine may cause acute diarrhoea: this often happens to someone who travels to another country and acquires unfamiliar intestinal bacteria. Other infections include bacillary dysentery, typhoid fever and paratyphoid fevers (see ENTERIC FEVER). Drug toxicity, food allergy, food intolerance and anxiety may also cause acute diarrhoea, and habitual constipation may result in attacks of diarrhoea.

Treatment of diarrhoea in adults depends on the cause. The water and salts (see ELECTROLYTES) lost during a severe attack must be replaced to prevent dehydration. Ready-prepared mixtures of salts can be bought from a pharmacist. Antidiarrhoeal drugs such as codeine phosphate or loperamide should be used in infectious diarrhoea only if the symptoms are disabling. Antibacterial drugs may be used under medical direction. Persistent diarrhoea – longer than a week – or blood-stained diarrhoea must be investigated under medical supervision.

Diarrhoea in infants can be such a serious condition that it requires separate consideration. One of its features is that it is usually accompanied by vomiting; the result can be rapid dehydration as infants have relatively high fluid requirements. Mostly it is causd by acute gastroenteritis caused by various viruses, most commonly ROTAVIRUSES, but also by many bacteria. In the developed world most children recover rapidly, but diarrhoea is the single greatest cause of infant mortality worldwide. The younger the infant, the higher the mortality rate.

Diarrhoea is much more rare in breast-fed babies, and when it does occur it is usually less severe. The environment of the infant is also important: the condition is highly infectious and, if a case occurs in a maternity home or a children’s hospital, it tends to spread quickly. This is why doctors prefer to treat such children at home but if hospital admission is essential, isolation and infection-control procedures are necessary.

Treatment An infant with diarrhoea should not be fed milk (unless breast-fed, when this should continue) but should be given an electrolyte mixture, available from pharmacists or on prescription, to replace lost water and salts. If the diarrhoea improves within 24 hours, milk can gradually be reintroduced. If diarrhoea continues beyond 36–48 hours, a doctor should be consulted. Any signs of dehydration require urgent medical attention; such signs include drowsiness, lack of response, loose skin, persistent crying, glazed eyes and a dry mouth and tongue.

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