Diarrhoeal disease is the second leading cause of death in children under five years old, and is responsible for killing around 525 000 children every year. Diarrhoea can last several days, and can leave the body without the water and salts that are necessary for survival. In the past, for most people, severe dehydration and fluid loss were the main causes of diarrhoea deaths. Now, other causes such as septic bacterial infections are likely to account for an increasing proportion of all diarrhoea-associated deaths. Children who are malnourished or have impaired immunity as well as people living with HIV are most at risk of life-threatening diarrhoea.
Diarrhoea is usually caused by a virus, or sometimes, contaminated food. Less frequently, it can be a sign of another disorder, such as inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome.
Symptoms include frequent, loose, watery stools and stomach pain.
Most cases clear on their own. Some infections may need antibiotics. Severe cases can cause enough dehydration to require intravenous fluids.
Diarrhoea is defined as the passage of three or more loose or liquid stools per day (or more frequent passage than is normal for the individual). Frequent passing of formed stools is not diarrhoea, nor is the passing of loose, “pasty” stools by breastfed babies.