Diarrhoea can be life-threatening


Getting diarrhoea is nothing unusual, but if left untreated, it could be life-threatening.

Everyone gets diarrhoea or loose stools from time to time. It’s just human. Mostly it clears up by itself within two to three days with the help of some over-the-counter medication.  But when does it become dangerous?

Diarrhoea can be caused by a bowel infection (gastroenteritis) which can in turn be caused by a virus, bacteria or a parasite. The last two often enter the body by means of infected food or water.

Some other frequent causes of diarrhoea include anxiety, a change in diet, excessive alcohol consumption, medications you are taking, food allergies or intolerance, or it could be a symptom of more serious long-term conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, coeliac disease or Crohn’s disease.

When you have diarrhoea, the digestion and absorption of nutrients are disrupted.  You also lose a lot of fluids.

Not many people realise how dangerous ongoing or severe diarrhoea can be – and not only in young children or the elderly. Everyone is at risk of the very real health risks that dehydration and the loss of electrolytes in the blood can bring.

More about dehydration

Two-thirds of the human body consists of water. When you become dehydrated as a result of not drinking enough water, sweating a lot, or having digestive problems, such as diarrhoea or vomiting, the body cannot function properly, as it has lost some of the electrolytes that make these things happen.

Dehydration happens quickly and easily, especially in young children whose body weight is comparatively low. Elderly people may also not respond so readily to the thirst signal as younger people do, putting them in danger.

More about electrolytes

These are chemicals in the body that control certain very important functions, such as muscle contraction, blood clotting, cell division, heart contractions, fluid balance, bone strength and nerve function.

These chemicals include sodium, magnesium, calcium, chloride and potassium. Ongoing diarrhoea or vomiting and the accompanying possible dehydration can cause an electrolyte imbalance in the body, which can lead to muscle spasms, confusion, seizures, irregular heartbeat, bone disorders and changes in your blood pressure – all potentially very serious symptoms.

When should you see a doctor?

When left untreated, diarrhoea could be life-threatening.  In adults, seek help if your acute diarrhoea does not improve within two days – in the case of children, it is one day. Little or no urination is also an alarm signal, as are dizziness, listlessness, ongoing excessive thirst or blood in the stools. Seek medical attention rapidly to prevent dehydration in children.


  • Drink regular, small quantities of water (large quantities wash even more electrolytes out of your system)
  • Drink fruit juice (adults) or oral rehydration drinks to replace lost salts and minerals
  • Consult your doctor about taking anti-diarrhoeal medications
  • In severe cases you might need a drip to rehydrate you


Sources: National Cancer Institute; NHS Scotland; Maycolinic.org; Victoria State Government – Better health

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