Diarrhoeal Disease: Know the Basics | Western Cape Government


Diarrhoeal Disease: Know the Basics

2 January 2013

A child dies of diarrhoeal disease and related diseases every fourteen seconds. That means that four children die every minute, 6 000 children die every day and 42 000 children die every week on average. Of all the children who die from diarrhoeal and related diseases, 80% die in the first two years of their life. The sad fact is that most of these deaths can be prevented.

What is diarrhoeal disease?

Diarrhoeal disease is defined as loose or watery stools at least three times per day or more frequently than normal. Although most episodes of childhood diarrhoea are mild, acute cases can lead to significant fluid loss and dehydration. This may result in death or it may have other severe consequences if the body's fluids are not replaced. Diarrhoeal disease is a common cause of death in developing countries and the second most common cause of infant deaths worldwide.

The following types of diarrhoeal disease, among others, are found:

Acute diarrhoea is when diarrhoea lasts for fewer than 14 days. It causes dehydration and contributes to malnutrition.

Persistent diarrhoea is when diarrhoea lasts for more than 14 days. It often causes nutritional problems and increases the risk of malnutrition and serious non-intestinal infections that results in dehydration.

Dysentery is when diarrhoea contains blood in the stool, with or without mucus. Dysentery is very dangerous because it can lead to anorexia, rapid weight loss and damage to the intestinal mucosa.

Inflammatory diarrhoea occurs when there is damage to the mucosal lining or brush border of the gastrointestinal tract. This leads to the passive loss of protein-rich fluids and a decreased ability to absorb these lost fluids. Features of all three types of diarrhoea mentioned above can be found in this type of diarrhoea.

What causes diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea can be caused by bacterial, viral or parasitic infections. It can also be the result of autoimmune problems such as inflammatory bowel disease. It can also be caused by tuberculosis, colon cancer and enteritis. Food allergy or food intolerance, like gluten intolerance or fructose mal-absorption, can cause diarrhoea. Pernicious anaemia, or allergy impaired bowel function due to the inability to absorb vitamin B12, can also cause diarrhoea.

How can diarrhoea be prevented?

Diarrhoea can be prevented by:

  • improving access to clean water and safe sanitation
  • promoting education about hygiene
  • improving weaning practices
  • immunising all children, especially against Rotavirus and measles
  • keeping food and water clean
  • washing hands with soap (the baby's hands too) before touching food
  • practicing the sanitary disposal of stools.

What to do if symptoms are evident

If diarrhoea is treated immediately and you receive proper care, you can recover within a few days in most cases. When diarrhoea persists for more than 24 hours, it is always advisable to visit your nearest clinic or contact a healthcare provider.

Media Enquiries: 

Sithembiso Magubane
Tel: 021 483 2904
Cell: 071 315 3581
E-mail: Sithembiso.Magubane@westerncape.gov.za