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Tips on coping with diarrhoea

Find out about all the ways you can cope with diarrhoea caused by cancer or its treatment.

Managing your diet

Although it is usually better for us to eat a diet high in fibre, this makes diarrhoea worse. So if you have diarrhoea you will need to break the rules for a while and eat foods that don’t contain too much fibre. It’s best to check with your doctor or nurse how long you should do this for.

Foods high in fibre include:

  • high fibre cereals such as bran
  • whole grain breads
  • dried and fresh fruit
  • nuts
  • vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and beans

Other foods that tend to make diarrhoea worse include:

  • greasy, fatty and fried foods
  • foods with caffeine in them – chocolate and coffee
  • dairy foods such as milk, yogurt, cheese, butter and cream

Some foods tend to make your stools firmer so try these instead:

  • rice and pasta
  • potatoes without the skin
  • dry cracker biscuits
  • baked foods
  • white bread
  • pretzels
  • bananas
  • chicken, beef or fish

Avoid pickled and spicy foods because these irritate the digestive tract and can make diarrhoea worse. Eating several small meals a day instead of 3 large ones can help you feel less bloated.

Drinking plenty of fluids

You lose a lot of fluid if you have diarrhoea so it is important to replace this to prevent dehydration. Drink as often as you can, even if it is just small sips. And avoid alcoholic drinks, because they make you lose fluid, rather than replacing it.

The best types of fluids to drink include:

  • water
  • herbal teas
  • clear soups
  • non fizzy drinks
  • electrolyte replacement drinks such as Dioralyte
  • soy milk

Soothing the skin around your anus

The skin around your back passage (anus) can become very sore and may even break down if you have severe diarrhoea. These tips may help:

  • use unscented baby wipes instead of toilet paper to wipe yourself after you’ve been to the toilet
  • have a warm bath to help soothe pain and help with healing – do this a few times a day if necessary
  • pat the area dry with a soft towel after a shower or bath – don’t rub
  • ask your doctor or nurse about soothing creams, such as E45, vaseline, or zinc cream to apply around your anus
  • avoid wearing tight trousers or underwear
  • cotton underwear will help to keep the area ventilated – nylon can make you sweat and cause even more soreness

Being prepared when you go out

One of the hardest things about having diarrhoea is that it can sometimes happen very suddenly. You will probably want to be close to a toilet at all times to avoid accidents.

It is very natural to feel embarrassed and upset if an accident does happen, even if no one else knows about it. You may worry that people will smell it. This is very hard to cope with. But your close family and friends will understand and will want to help and make things as easy as possible for you.

To avoid accidents when you go out, you can help to prepare yourself:

  • know exactly where the toilets are in the place you are going
  • contact the Bladder and Bowel Foundation or Pelvic Radiotherapy Disease Association for a 'Just can't wait' card to give you quick access to public toilets
  • don’t go on long car, train or bus trips
  • take spare underwear, pads, soothing creams and a plastic bag with you, just in case
  • you can always rinse out underwear in the bathroom sink and put it in the bag to take home – no one needs to know about this
  • wearing a pad can help to protect your underwear and make you feel a bit safer
  • take a spare stoma bag with you if you have a colostomy or ileostomy
  • there are products on the market to help mask the smell from a colostomy so ask your stoma nurse about these

Being prepared at home

When you are at home, try to:

  • protect your mattress – put a large pad or towel on your bed if you are worried about having an accident during the night
  • leave a night light on near your bed, in the hallway and bathroom to light up where you are going so you can get to the toilet quickly

There are disposable waterproof bed pads made for toddlers during toilet training. These can be very handy and help you to feel more secure. You can buy these in supermarkets. Or your nurse may be able to give you some from the hospital, as they use a similar product. You could also contact your local continence advisor by finding them on the Bladder and Bowel Foundation database. 

You may feel safer with a commode by the bed if you aren’t able to move quickly. Your nurse can help you arrange to borrow a commode for as long as you need it.

Even if it is embarrassing, it is important to let your doctor know if you are having accidents. They may be able to change your anti diarrhoea medicines.


Having diarrhoea for more than a couple of days can be exhausting. You are bound to feel very tired and weak if you have lost a lot of fluid. So it's very important to let your body rest when you can.

Ask your family and friends to help you with things like cooking, cleaning the house, shopping, and collecting children from school. They really won’t mind so don’t be afraid to ask. It’s important that you get all the help and rest you need.

Last reviewed: 
08 Jun 2017
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • The Royal Marsden Hospital Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th Edition)
    Editors: Lisa Dougherty and Sara Lister
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

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