What's causing my diarrhoea?

We look at some of the most common causes of diarrhoea and how to speed up recovery.

28 November 2014
by Wendy Maritz

Is something ‘going around’?

It’s quite common for adults to suffer bouts of diarrhoea up to four times a year. “Most cases are a result of viral infections,” explains gastroenterologist Dr Monique Marais. These are quite contagious and can spread through contaminated food, water or surfaces, and by other infected people. Usually, these tummy bugs will affect groups of people in a shared space, such as schools, offices and nursing homes, and are normally more prevalent at certain times of the year.

Is it something I ate?

Contaminated food (for example, undercooked meat, eggs and shellfish), contaminated water and unpasteurised milk can result in bacterial infections that cause diarrhoea.

Is it the medication I'm on?

Diarrhoea may be a side effect of prescription or over-the-counter medications or even supplements.

Do I have an intolerance to certain foods?

Your body may have difficulty digesting certain foods, most commonly dairy products or wheat. The undigested food can also cause nausea, cramping and bloating within 30 minutes to two hours after ingestion.


“Drink plenty of fluids containing water, salt and sugar, such as diluted juices, flavoured sodas and clear soup,” advises Dr Marais.

To ensure you’re getting in enough liquid, check your urine, which should be light yellow or clear, she adds. “Try to eat small amounts of food like pasta, rice, oatmeal, crackers, bananas and cooked vegetables. As far as medication goes, loperamide is safe to use if you don’t have a fever or bloody stools (see a doctor immediately if you do).” And finally, rest is important, so stay at home until you feel better.

When should you seek medical attention?

Dr Marais offers these warning guidelines:

  • Your symptoms are still there after 48 hours;
  • You’ve had more than six runny bowel movements in 24 hours;
  • There is blood or mucous in your stools;
  • Your stools are black;
  • You have a fever over 38 degrees;
  • You have accompanying severe belly pain;
  • You are over 70 years of age;
  • You have diarrhoea after using antibiotics;
  • You become dehydrated (symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, confusion, dark urine, a dry mouth or tongue).

Tips to avoid infections

  • Wash all utensils and your hands after handling raw food.
  • Ensure your food is properly refrigerated or frozen.
  • Take note of all sell-by dates on food products and expiry dates on medications.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com