Diarrhea treatment - please read on and pick up tips for how to cope when your bowel is not behaving itself.
This information is intended for people who are experiencing an acute (sudden onset) attack. In most cases an acute episode of diarrhea will clear up in 1-4 days in adults and up to a week in children without any treatment but there are things you can do to shorten the attack and to guard against dangerous side effects like dehydration.
The most important diarrhea treatment is to replace the fluids which are lost when you have a bowel movement.This is especially important if you are vomiting.
When your poop is much more liquid than usual, fluids which are important for keeping your tissues healthy and your blood volume normal are lost. Your blood pressure can drop and in severe cases you could end up with kidney failure or even death.
Did you know that it is not only fluids that are lost but other things such as sodium, potassium and glucose? These need to be replaced too.
Every time that you have a bowel movement you should drink a cup of fluid of at least 200ml. This is in addition to your normal fluid intake.
So what is the best drink for diarrhea? Adults can drink water if they are eating but the best fluids for diarrhea contain small amounts of sugar and salt.
What to drink when you have diarrhea:
Sports drinks and ORS have a good balance of sugar and salts or you can alternate sugary and salty fluids (do not add extra salt or sugar).
Sucking on popsicles, ice lollies and ice cubes is also a good way to up your fluid intake.
If you are vomiting then take small sips of drink every 2-3 minutes.
If you do see signs of dehydration which do not resolve quickly when you drink more, then please go to the emergency room immediately as fluid replacement with intravenous fluids (a drip) may be needed.
Signs of dehydration to look out for are:
There are people with certain health conditions like heart failure and kidney failure who have to restrict their fluids. These people should not drink extra fluids but should contact their health care practitioner immediately if they are ill with diarrhea.
There are many recipes on the internet for homemade oral rehydration solutions which are recommended as a diarrhea treatment. These involve adding salt and sugar to clean water to produce a well balanced fluid to help prevent and reverse dehydration. These recipes have saved lives in developing countries where commercial solutions are not always available.
Be very careful if making your own recipe, as for example, teaspoons are not a standard size. Do not give homemade solutions to babies and young children.
In the past a common diarrhea treatment would be to fast during an attack. Most doctors no longer make this recommendation although opinions can differ. You should continue to eat small light meals or snacks.
Foods to eat when you have diarrhea include:
Some foods and food additives can irritate the bowel, act as diuretics like caffeine or act as laxatives like sweeteners.
Foods to avoid when you have diarrhea include:
If you have no appetite and do not feel like eating do not worry as it is not harmful to go without food for a short while, as long as you are drinking plenty of fluids.
There are over the counter medications that you can take to slow down or stop your attack of diarrhea.
The most widely used treatment for diarrhea is loperamide hydrochloride (it has various trade names like Imodium, Lopex, Dimor and others). This medication has few side effects and is usually effective.
It works by slowing down the muscles in your intestines allowing more time for fluid to be absorbed.This means that your stools will be firmer and will be passed less often.
Some people with certain health conditions should not take this medication especially those suffering with C. diff infection or with a history of liver disease. Do not give it to children and babies. Do not take if pregnant or breastfeeding or taking antibiotics. Please check the patient information leaflet.
An alternative diarrhea treatment is called racecadotril. The action of this medication is to reduce the amount of fluid which is secreted in the small bowel.
This drug is available in Europe, Asia and South America but not in the United States of America. It was licensed for use in the UK in 2012,. including for children over the age of 3 months.
Do not take racecadotril if you have kidney or liver problems and take advice if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
The use of medication as a diarrhea treatment is not advised if you have a fever, are passing blood or mucus or have other signs of illness.
Please follow the instructions in the patient information leaflet and when your stools firm up stop taking the medication or you will suffer from constipation.
Antibiotics are not used routinely as a diarrhea treatment as most infectious diarrhea is caused by viruses which do not respond to antibiotics.
If your diarrhea does not clear up in a few days your doctor may request a stool sample from you to be tested in the lab. If a bacteria is detected which can be treated by antibiotics then the lab will be able to recommend the exact antibiotic for your doctor to prescribe.
Diarrhea can be a side effect of taking antibiotics. This can be because the friendly bacteria in your gut are knocked out by the antibiotics at the same time as any harmful bacteria. In some countries probiotics are given alongside antibiotics to help overcome this problem.
Like adults, children should continue to eat bland food, little and often if they feel like it and should be given plenty of fluids. If their appetite is poor then fluids are more important than food. Children are more at risk of dehydration than adults because they have less fluid in their small bodies.
Oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte and Dioralyte should be given according to the instructions each time your child has a bowel movement in addition to their normal drinks.
Children can deteriorate much more quickly than adults so if you are not happy with your child's condition and especially if they have a fever, bad abdominal pain or seem weak or floppy seek medical attention for them quickly.
For more information about how to recognize dehydration in children please see here.
If your baby is being fed with formula or breast milk you should continue to do this as normal. Extra water should be given between feeds. You should seek medical advice before using oral rehydration solutions for babies. Other diarrhea treatments such as medication should not be given.
Babies will become dehydrated much more quickly than children or adults and so they should be monitored very carefully. See here for more information about recognizing dehydration in babies. If you have any concerns about your baby then seek medical attention quickly.
Babies who are breastfed tend to have very liquid stools which can be normal. Babies that are being weaned can have a reaction to new foods, so how do you know if they have diarrhea?
You know what your baby's normal bowel habit is and you should suspect diarrhea if the frequency of their bowel movements increases or becomes more liquid, especially if they appear unwell. See this page about baby diarrhea for more information.
Using probiotics as a diarrhea treatment has been shown to be effective at reducing the length of the time the diarrhea lasts in some studies but not all.
The bowel contains many different types of bacteria most of them friendly. These so-called friendly bacteria help to keep your bowel healthy and fight off any nasty bacteria which manage to enter the bowel.
Some types of bacteria do not cause a problem in small quantities but can cause a problem if they overgrow and you need friendly bacteria to keep them in check. Probiotics are like microbial policemen that patrol your intestines and help keep everything in order.
Introducing more friendly bacteria (the good guys) therefore can only be a good thing.
When buying probiotics look for ones that have a high level of microflora, at a minimum of more than 10 billion colony forming units or CFUs per dose, and which have more than one strain in them as a combination of strains will work better.
The problem with older generations of probiotics is that they were easily and quickly destroyed by the stomach acid and so never reached the large intestine where they were needed and so did not work so well as a diarrhea treatment.
Newer generations of probiotics often have acid resisting strains or enteric coatings to protect them as they move through the stomach. Look out for this.
When your probiotics arrive always keep them in the refrigerator. Although most are packaged in a way to allow them to last long enough while they are distributed to the shops or customer, they are perishable and need to be refrigerated immediately upon arrival unless it specifically says on the packaging that this is not necessary.
One of my favorite diarrhea treatment probiotic is Lab4 which has been tested in hospital clinical trials and is sold under the trade name ProVen Probiotics. Other good quality probiotics are available.
Most bouts of diarrhea will clear up in a few days and you will recover more quickly if you use a treatment for diarrhea as mentioned above, but sometimes the diarrhea persists.
If you do not get better in a few days or if you have a fever, blood, mucus, bad abdominal pain or signs of dehydration then get medical attention.
You may need tests, intravenous fluids, or other treatments if you have a long term condition.
For more information please see these pages about diarrhea symptoms and causes of diarrhea.
The pages below give more information about diarrhea treatment.
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