Symptoms of diarrhoea

What are the symptoms of diarrhoea?

Alison Cullen
Nutritional Practitioner, BA (Hons), DN, DNT (Distinction)
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An introduction to the symptoms of diarrhoea

Most of us have experienced diarrhoea at some point in our lives, perhaps in response to something we have eaten, or a course of medication. Symptoms of diarrhoea can vary, but generally there are some common features.

Diarrhoea episodes are often relatively short-lived and aren’t a cause for major concern. However, it is important to be aware of some warning signs to look out for; if these manifest you should go to your doctor. Generally though, the symptoms of diarrhoea are as described below.


Diarrhoea is classified as the opening of the bowels more than four times in 24 hours or more than three times over the same period but including a trip to the bathroom during the night.

Transit time (the time taken for food to move from the mouth to the toilet) is abnormally fast in diarrhoea, meaning the food we are consuming is passing through the whole length of our digestive tract too quickly.

If our transit time is too fast, we are at risk of malabsorption, as we aren’t effectively absorbing the macronutrients and essential vitamins and minerals from our food.  A quick transit time can often be identified with the presence of partially undigested food in your stools.


If food waste is transported too quickly through your digestive system, gas can become trapped.

Gas is naturally produced as by-product of the processes involved in digestion (for example during fermentation in the large intestine) and is naturally passed steadily throughout the day. Therefore in moderation flatulence and belching are common functions.

However, uncoordinated contractions of the muscles in the gut can cause this gas to move too quickly through the system and become trapped; this can result in bloating.

Natural bacteria of the gut can also contribute to bloating. As the bacteria digest food waste, they produce gas. In instances of bacterial overgrowth, bacterial imbalance (dysbiosis) or food intolerance, excess or smelly gas may be produced and we are at risk of experiencing bloating or excessive flatulence as a result.


Pain experienced in diarrhoea is most commonly associated with the sporadic contractions of the muscles in the gut being felt. This can be an uncomfortable feeling but is a normal feature of diarrhoea.

In the case of severe pain or the appearance of fresh blood or stools appearing black in colour (may be dried blood) a visit to your doctor is recommended as this could signal your gut is inflamed.


The consistencies of your stools are variable at the best of times, depending on what you eat and drink, how much you consume, and the composition of these foods.

However, some distinct features of our stools can give us an idea of how constipated we may be (perhaps incorporating extra dietary fibre or drink more water would be a good idea) or if diarrhoea is present.

Diarrhoea could be simply the result of a lack of dietary fibre or overindulging in a certain food type but it could also indicate the presence of inflammation. If your gut is thought to be inflamed a trip to your doctor is recommended.

Refer to the Bristol stool chart to begin evaluating your stools and decipher what this means regarding the state of your bowels.


A sudden urge or need to use the bathroom without delay is common if diarrhoea is present. Bowel urgency can be extremely distressing and can contribute to stress and anxiety issues.

Unfortunately stress can, in turn, make a bowel urgency situation even worse. In stressful situations, our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. Cardiac muscle, skeletal muscles, breathing and cognitive functions take over and processes like digestion and bowel processes are no longer priority. This means we are likely to have even less control over these aspects.


Diarrhoea involves the frequent passage of watery stools resulting in more water being excreted from your body than you are able to absorb. Therefore, we can very easily become dehydrated which can give rise to a host of other symptoms such as headache, fatigue, light-headedness and confusion.

It is important to consume liquids during diarrhoea, if possible in addition to electrolytes.

Nausea and fever

Although nausea and fever may not necessarily be a direct symptom of diarrhoea, they often occur together. Nausea and fever are usually found if infection is the cause of diarrhoea – the result of a viral or bacterial infection.

Bacteria, once inside our body, can cause inflammation and release toxins into our system. In an effort to try and rid ourselves of these, the vomiting reflex might be triggered.

Viruses spread throughout our bodies, invading our healthy cells as they go. Aching muscles and joints are a common feature of viral infections as the virus physically works its way around your body.

A high temperature can also be common, as our body tries to increase our core temperature in a bid to destroy the invading infection.

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Your gut is extremely sensitive... emotionally! It’s full of nerves (just like the brain), so when you’re stressed it can become upset, which can lead to diarrhoea or other digestive problems!

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