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The word diarrhoea, when translated from Greek, means “flow through”. People are diagnosed with diarrhoea when they have three or more loose bowel motions in a day. Often this is accompanied with sharp cramping stomach pain before the motion is passed and a desperate need to find a toilet quickly.

There are many causes of diarrhoea, but the most common cause for New Zealanders is from a bacterial or viral infection. This is more common over the summer months when food may not be stored at temperatures low enough to prevent these organisms multiplying. The usual organisms that cause diarrhoea in New Zealand are Campylobacter and Salmonella; generally from poorly cooked or stored meat, especially chicken.

Traveller’s diarrhoea is common in countries where water quality is poor, and the organisms responsible for these infections are often Giardia and amoeba. Prolonged infection with these organisms may cause dysentery, which is acute diarrhoea accompanied with mucus and blood in the motions. Dysentery results in inflammation of the intestines and is persistent and often has serious consequences.

Diarrhoea may also be chronic, where the sufferer has frequent loose bowel motions for extended periods of time and may be a result of medical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Some medications may also cause loose motions, either as an intended effect, such as from laxatives, or as an unwanted side effect.

If there is blood in a bowel motion, it is important to seek medical advice as soon as possible. Bleeding from the bowel can be a sign of more serious conditions, or may be from haemorrhoids (piles), which also need diagnosis and treatment.

If you or anyone in your family develops frequent bowel motions, then consult your community pharmacist. They can advise you on causes, or refer you to your doctor if medical treatment is required.

The most common result of diarrhoea is fluid depletion, or dehydration, as water and minerals are removed in the motions faster than you can replace them. It is important, particularly for children, to replace fluids and electrolytes quickly. Rehydration products are available from all pharmacies to treat diarrhoea. It is helpful to have a packet of rehydration sachets available at home, so that treatment may start as soon as the diarrhoea occurs. As a rule of thumb, one sachet of rehydration powder, made up to 200ml with water, should be taken after each loose motion for adults. Other products are also available to help with the symptoms of diarrhoea, but the best first treatment should always be rehydration. Similarly, your pharmacist can give you advice about changing your diet to help manage the symptoms of diarrhoea and speed up your recovery.

Consult your community pharmacist as they can advise you and give you information about the best treatment and prevention for diarrhoea. If you need to seek further help to manage your condition they will advise you of the urgency of this referral, and point you in the right direction for further assistance.