Diarrhea refers to loose, watery stools and potentially more frequent bowel movements. This is usually accompanied by:
- Abdominal cramps
- Abdominal pain
- Urgent bowel movements1
Acute diarrhea is the most common form of the condition, usually lasting only one or two days. Persistent diarrhea lasts two to four weeks, while chronic diarrhea lasts longer than four weeks. Chronic diarrhea often points to a more serious condition, like irritable bowel syndrome, or a persistent infection, like inflammatory bowel disease.2
Everyone occasionally gets diarrhea. While it usually passes on its own, diarrhea does pose some potential complications to your health, particularly dehydration from the loss of fluids and electrolytes. If your diarrhea is persistent, malabsorption can give way to malnourishment.2 Dehydration and malabsorption notwithstanding, diarrhea is inconvenient, painful, and uncomfortable.
Learn more about the common causes of diarrhea, the medical treatments available, and some home remedies to soothe adults and baby diarrhea symptoms below.
Home Remedies for Diarrhea
Home remedies aim to help you cope with symptoms until the diarrhea works its way out of your system.
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The most critical aspect of any treatment for diarrhea, whether it’s at home or in the doctor’s office, is staying hydrated. Diarrhea causes a significant loss of fluids and electrolytes. If you aren’t replenishing these, you can easily end up dehydrated, which presents more serious and potentially fatal symptoms. In adults, dehydration is noted by:
- Extreme thirst
- Infrequent urination
Plain water, broth, and sports drinks can be fine for mild diarrhea, but for more severe cases, you may also need to replenish the natural salts and sugars in your body using oral rehydration solutions like Ceralyte or Rehydralyte.10
Eat the Right Foods
What to eat when you have diarrhea? Even after a bout of diarrhea, you still need to keep up your health and strength with food, which provides you nutrients and can help you absorb fluids more efficiently. Unfortunately, considering your compromised stomach, you can’t and shouldn’t eat whatever you please.
Boiled starches and cereals, including potatoes, noodles, rice, and oats, can help you maintain nutrient intake without aggravating your diarrhea. Soup can be particularly helpful in providing both nutrition and fluids.8
Many people find the BRAT diet helpful and easy after diarrhea. The BRAT diet comprises bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These foods are easy for your stomach to handle and provide a mix of vitamins, fiber, and carbohydrates to give you energy. Eat smaller meals more frequently throughout the day instead of three larger meals.11
Avoid the Wrong Foods
Avoid any foods that are particularly greasy, spicy, or fatty, all of which may irritate your gut and cause further diarrhea. You should also stay away from alcohol, caffeine, and overly sweet beverages or juices. Along with irritating and overwhelming your digestive system, beverages like alcohol and caffeine act as diuretics, meaning they cause increased urination, which can further contribute to your dehydration.
You should generally stay away from milk and other dairy products as well. Even if you’re not normally lactose intolerant, your stomach may have trouble breaking down lactose, making you temporarily sensitive to dairy products. The one exception to this is probiotic-rich yogurt, which can restore your good bacteria and rebalance your gut flora.12
When you have diarrhea, your body needs to rest. While it’s okay to go about your normal daily activities, exercise and workouts put a lot of excess stress on your body and force you to expend calories that you probably don’t have. Strenuous exercises can also further promote dehydration.15
Over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medication can help to control symptoms and reduce the frequency of watery bowel movements. Lopremide, sold as Imodium, is a common anti-diarrheal that is designed to slow down intestinal movement.13 Pepto-Bismol and other medications containing bismuth subsalicylate work by slowing the growth of bacteria responsible for the diarrhea.14
It should be noted that certain conditions and infections can get worse by using these drugs as they inhibit you from getting rid of the bacteria or parasites causing your diarrhea. These medications may not necessarily be safe for everyone, particularly children, so consult your doctor before taking these drugs or giving them to your child.7
As mentioned, probiotics can be effective in replenishing good gut bacteria and actively fighting certain causes of diarrhea. Studies suggest that Lactobacillus GG may effectively reduce the duration of childhood infectious diarrhea, while Saccharomyces boulardii may reduce the duration of C. diff.8 Probiotics can naturally be found in certain foods, including kefir and kombucha, and are available as supplements.7
Probiotics for healthy digestion
What are the Common Causes of Diarrhea?
Diarrhea can be caused by a variety of different conditions and diseases.
Harmful viruses can infect the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in viral gastroenteritis. Viral gastroenteritis, more commonly known as the stomach flu, is caused by several viruses, most prominently norovirus and rotavirus. This most often occurs from ingesting contaminated food or water, but it can also come from contact with utensils, linens, or other objects shared with someone who is infected.3
Bacterial and Parasitic Infections
Food poisoning occurs when you ingest water or food that has expired or been contaminated with bacteria or parasites. These microbes enter your digestive system, releasing toxins that ultimately result in diarrhea. Common parasites that can cause diarrhea include Cryptosporidium (more common in immunodeficient persons) and Giardia lamblia (associated with unsanitary drinking water). Bacteria that cause diarrhea include:
- E. coli
- Campylobacter jejuni
Traveler’s diarrhea is a form of food poisoning that occurs from consuming contaminated food or drink while traveling.
C. diff, which is most often spread in hospitals and nursing homes following a course of antibiotics, is also a common culprit of diarrhea.
Certain medications can potentially cause diarrhea as a side effect. For example, antibiotics are designed to combat bacteria, but they are unfortunately not capable of discerning between bad and good bacteria. By destroying all bacteria, antibiotics can create imbalances in your natural gut flora, allowing for more harmful bacteria to grow and thrive. Other prescription drugs that can cause diarrhea include:
- Chemotherapy medicines
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Mycophenolate and other drugs that suppress the immune system4
While there are a wide range of food allergies and intolerances that can cause diarrhea, lactose intolerance is one of the most common. Lactose is a natural sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Lactase, an enzyme produced by the small intestine, helps to break down lactose. Those who are lactose intolerant are deficient in lactase, making them unable to properly digest lactose, resulting in diarrhea, bloating, gas, and sometimes nausea and vomiting.5 People who are lactose intolerant can enjoy dairy if they take a digestive enzyme supplement containing additional lactase or consume dairy that has been made lactose-free.
Gluten Intolerance (Celiac’s Disease)
Gluten intolerance is another food allergy that can cause diarrhea. Approximately 1% of average healthy adults have it.16
Screening for Celiac’s disease in asymptomatic individuals is currently not recommended. Diagnosis is recommended for people who have chronic and reoccurring gastrointestinal symptoms similar to IBS or lactose intolerance and involves serological (blood) testing or endoscopy.17
Even if you do not have allergies, certain foods can still trigger diarrhea. Spicy foods and seasonings are known to irritate your stomach lining, which can result in diarrhea on top of gas, bloating, and burning. Aspartame, saccharine, and other artificial sweeteners are also known to cause diarrhea in otherwise healthy individuals.6
How to Get Rid of Diarrhea with Medical Treatment
Most forms of diarrhea will go away on their own given a couple days. Many treatments for diarrhea aim more at preventing dehydration by replacing lost fluids and electrolytes. However, if your diarrhea does not clear up on its own or presents more serious symptoms, including bloody or black stools and a fever above 102° Fahrenheit, your doctor may recommend treatment.7
For ongoing diarrhea caused by bacteria or parasites, your doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics, which can effectively reduce the duration and severity of the diarrhea. However, many experts recommend avoiding the use of antibiotics for cases of community-acquired, non-travel associated diarrhea. Antibiotic therapy can come with potential drawbacks and side effects, including imbalances in gut flora and bacterial resistance. Excess antibiotic usage may contribute to more diarrhea and other gastrointestinal issues.8 If you are taking antibiotics, take a probiotic with it to lower the chances of developing antibiotic associated diarrhea.
When to Contact a Doctor
People with chronic diarrhea or who may be at risk of a more severe disease may need medical treatment for their diarrhea. If you are an adult, consult your doctor if:
- Your diarrhea persists for longer than one week
- You experience symptoms of dehydration
- You experience severe rectal pain
- Your stools are black or bloody
- You have a fever of 102° Fahrenheit or higher1
Diarrhea in babies and kids can be particularly dangerous. Children are more susceptible to dehydration from diarrhea. Contact your doctor if your child’s diarrhea does not improve within 24 hours or if they:
- Experience symptoms of dehydration
- Have a fever of 102° Fahrenheit or higher
- Have black or bloody stools1
Diarrhea is generally not something you need to worry about, but if it is not going away on its own or presenting increasing pain and discomfort, please contact your doctor as soon as possible.