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Assessing diarrhoea

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This page has information on assessing your diarrhoea. You can find information about


Effects of diarrhoea on the body

If you have diarrhoea for long periods of time it can be very distressing. And you can feel very weak and tired. You can get dehydrated because food passes quickly through the bowel before your body absorbs the vitamins, minerals and water.

When you have diarrhoea, fluid is also drawn out of the cells in your body into the bowel. The fluid is released in your poo (stool or faeces). Losing large amounts of fluid can be dangerous for your body.

Along with fluid, you also lose important chemicals from the cells of your body. These chemicals are called electrolytes. They include sodium, potassium, and calcium.

The electrolytes must be in a certain balance for the body to function normally. When the electrolytes get out of balance it can be harmful to your kidneys and other organs in your body. The salts in the diarrhoea can also make the area around your anus very sore after a while.


Talking about your diarrhoea

Some people may find it hard to talk about having diarrhoea. You may feel embarrassed or upset by your problem. It’s understandable that you may worry that the diarrhoea means your cancer is getting worse or your treatment isn’t working. These feelings are very natural, but it generally isn’t the case.

Try to remember that your doctors and nurses will be very aware of these likely concerns and are used to talking about them. They will be able to reassure you that your diarrhoea is not affecting your cancer treatment. And they will be able to suggest ways to manage your diarrhoea.

Nurse talking with patient

Some people say that diarrhoea is the hardest aspect of cancer treatment to cope with. So it is very important that you get some help.

If you find it difficult to talk with your doctors or nurses, it may help to write down any problems that you have. You can give the list to your doctor or nurse to read. It can also help to have a friend or relative go with you and do the talking.

If you are going for your treatment in an open day unit, you can ask to go into a private room to discuss your diarrhoea. Your doctors and nurses are aware that you will want to talk in private sometimes, so don’t be afraid to ask.


What your doctor or nurse will do

Sometimes diarrhoea can be very difficult to control. This often depends on what is causing your diarrhoea. Your doctor or nurse will usually be able to prescribe you some medicines to help. And they can give you advice about ways to help yourself.

Before your doctor or nurse can decide on how best to treat your diarrhoea, they will need to assess how severe the problem is. They also need to find out what is causing it. They will probably want to ask you lots of questions. Health professionals use a grading system for diarrhoea from 1 to 4. Grade 1 is mild diarrhoea and grade 4 is the most severe. This can help your doctor or nurse to plan the best treatment for you.

It may seem like a lot to deal with if you are feeling very tired. You probably just want your treatment team to give you something to help you feel better and leave you alone. But it is extremely important that they take the time to assess all aspects of your diarrhoea so that you get the right treatment.

Your doctor or nurse will examine you and possibly arrange some other tests and investigations.


Questions your doctor or nurse may ask

  • How long have you had diarrhoea?
  • When did it start?
  • How many times are you opening your bowels each day?
  • Are you taking any laxatives or medicines for constipation?
  • Do you have to get up at night to open your bowels?
  • What do your bowel motions look like?
  • What are your normal bowel habits like?
  • Do certain foods make your diarrhoea worse?
  • Does it happen soon after you have had your cancer treatment?
  • When did you last have cancer treatment?
  • Are you taking any other medicines?
  • Have you made any changes to your diet?
  • Are you taking any drugs to help with diarrhoea?
  • How much is your diarrhoea stopping you from doing day to day things like shopping, working, getting around the house?

If you are feeling too tired, and really don’t feel up to answering questions, your family and friends may be able to help. Although you may find it embarrassing or inconvenient to speak to your doctor or nurse about your diarrhoea, the sooner they can treat it the more comfortable you will feel.

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Updated: 20 May 2014