Take charcoal tablets for diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is the passing of loose and watery stool frequently. Acute diarrhoea lasts for less than four weeks, while anything longer is considered chronic diarrhoea, said Dr Ooi Choon Jin, a gastroenterologist at Gleneagles Medical Centre.

Acute diarrhoea may arise from infections caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites, or be a side effect of some medication.

Viral infections usually resolve on their own, as is the case also with some bacterial infections.

Dr Ooi said antibiotics are prescribed only if the diarrhoea is severe or the patient is elderly and suffering from other medical conditions at the same time.

Parasitic infections, such as giardiasis and amoebiasis, would require antibiotics or anti-parasitic agents.

Food intolerance and allergies can cause diarrhoea over a short or long period. The diarrhoea becomes chronic if the person does not know what the trigger is and continues to eat it.

Generally, diarrhoeal illnesses due to food or drugs will improve "when the offending agents are stopped", he said.

Other causes of chronic diarrhoea include irritable bowel syndrome (a disorder giving rise to alternating symptoms of constipation and diarrhoea), inflammatory bowel disease (a chronic inflammation of all or part of the digestive tract), laxative abuse, some types of cancer and malabsorption from conditions such as lymphoma and pancreatic disease, Dr Ooi said.

Depending on the underlying cause of diarrhoea, a person may also suffer from abdominal pain, bloatedness, fever, nausea and vomiting at the same time.

Dr Ooi said there are "no reliable studies" to show the efficacy of using white hyacinth beans to treat diarrhoea.

Instead, what is commonly used are charcoal tablets, probiotics and anti-motility medication, he said. Charcoal acts by binding toxins many times its weight, so it reduces gas in the tummy and, therefore, the sensation of bloating.

Dr Ooi said probiotics, which work by populating the gut with good bacteria, are sometimes helpful in reducing the severity and duration of the illness.

Lastly, anti-motility medication slows down the movement of the contents in the intestines.

Dr Ooi cautioned that these may sometimes lead to more serious inflammation and prolong the course of diarrhoea and are best avoided for young children.

He said a visit to the doctor is warranted if there is high fever, moderate abdominal pain, blood in the stool and moderate to severe dehydration.

Symptoms of moderate dehydration include thirst, giddiness, little urine and lethargy, while severe dehydration may show as confusion, muscle spasms, near-fainting spells and the loss of consciousness.

Those who are elderly or have serious medical conditions should seek medical help early if the diarrhoea does not improve after 24to 48 hours, Dr Ooi added.

To prevent diarrhoea, people who travel to countries with poor sanitation should avoid drinking the tap water or consuming ice cubes there, he advised. They should drink only boiled or bottled water where possible.

He said that he would even avoid eating fresh salad in such places.

He added: "I always advise people to discard any food that tastes bad or has an expired shelf date."

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