How to Safely Treat Diarrhea
Diarrhea is an acute condition that leads to frequent loose or watery stools. People with diarrhea are less able to absorb nutrients or water in the intestines. If diarrhea persists, it can cause severe dehydration and require emergency medical intervention.
In most cases, diarrhea will resolve on its own with minimal treatment. It may be that your body was reacting to an infection or something you ate and simply flushed the toxin from your system. In cases like this, diarrhea may be considered protective.
However, when diarrhea persists more than a couple of days or recurs frequently, it may a sign of a bigger problem in need of medical care.
Here are some tips that can help when faced with a sudden bout of diarrhea:
Drink Plenty of Fluids
If faced with diarrhea, the first course of action to drink plenty of extra fluid. Water is always the best choice but any clear liquid will do. Milk may be okay for milder cases but can prolong or worsen diarrhea in some.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine, both to which have diuretic (water-excreting) effects. For moderate to severe cases, use an electrolyte solution like Gatorade or Pedialyte to replace those lost to diarrhea.
Consume the Right Probiotic
The bacterial cultures found in yogurt and probiotic supplements can help ease the symptoms and shorten the duration of certain types of diarrhea. This is especially true for people with antibiotic-associated diarrhea or acute gastroenteritis (“stomach flu”). But, not all probiotic cultures are effective in providing relief.
According to a 2015 review in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG) and Saccharomyces boulardii are the probiotic strains that appear to provide the greatest relief of diarrhea symptoms.
While the exact mechanism of action is unknown, the researchers concluded there is “strong and solid proof of the efficacy of probiotics as active treatment” of both antibiotic-associated diarrhea and acute gastroenteritis.
Consider a BRAT Diet
The BRAT diet is an acronym that describes the use of bananas, rice, apples (or applesauce), and dry toast to treat diarrhea, stomach flu, and other types of stomach-related illness. Also referred to as a bland diet, it is known to be gentle on the stomach and promote the binding of loose or watery stools.
The BRAT diet was once the standard course of treatment for pediatric diarrhea but now has been largely abandoned due to the lack of nutritional value.
With that being said, incorporating these foods into a normal diet can be extremely beneficial, especially during the first 24 hours of diarrhea. After that, it is important to pursue a normal diet with a healthy mix of fruits, vegetables, meat, yogurt, and complex carbohydrates.
When to See a Doctor
Staying hydrated and eating the right foods can help resolve mild bouts of diarrhea, but persistent or severe cases may require medical instance. Here are some instances where you would be advised to seek urgent or emergency care:
- Vomiting or diarrhea in newborns under 3 months
- Vomiting in children for more than 12 hours
- Diarrhea lasting more than 3 days in adults or children
- Bloody, black, or oily-looking stools
- Abdominal pain that doesn’t improve a bowel movement
- Dehydration symptoms, including dizziness, headache, weakness, and low urine output
- High fever of over 100.4o F
Diarrhea may be a nuisance for some or a sign of a serious problem in others. Because of this, you should never ignore symptoms of diarrhea if they are severe, persistent, recurrent, or accompanied by other abnormal symptoms.
If you decide to use an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal, limit yourself to a bismuth subsalicylate like Pepto-Bismol. On the other hand, you should avoid loperamide unless your doctor gives you the okay as it can cause a worsening of symptoms in people with inflammatory or bloody diarrhea.
Anti-diarrheal medications should never be used as a substitute for standard medical care. This is especially true if the symptoms are persistent or recurrent, regardless of the severity.
You should also see a doctor if diarrhea occurred after recent foreign travel (“traveler’s diarrhea”), if diarrhea coincided with the start of a new medication, or if others in your family (or people you have been with) also develop diarrhea.
- Barr W, Smith A. Acute Diarrhea in Adults. Am Fam Physician. 2014 Feb;8(3):189-9.
- Guarino A, Guandalini S, Lo Vecchio A. Probiotics for Prevention and Treatment of Diarrhea. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2015 Nov-Dec;49 Suppl 1:S37-45. doi:10.1097/MCG.0000000000000349.
- Xiao L, Ding G, Ding Y, et al. Effect of probiotics on digestibility and immunity in infants: A study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Medicine. 2017;96(14): e5953. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000005953.