How to Safely Treat Diarrhea

Self-Care Tips and Knowing When to See a Healthcare Provider

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.

How to treat diarrhea tips
Verywell / Cindy Chung

However, when diarrhea persists more than a couple of days or recurs frequently, it may be 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 is 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 of which have diuretic (water-excreting) effects. For moderate to severe cases, you may want to use an electrolyte solution like Gastrolyte or Pedialyte to replace those lost to diarrhea. Avoid sports drinks like Gatorade since their high sugar content can actually worsen diarrhea.

Consume the Right Probiotic

The bacterial cultures found in yogurt, kefir 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.

When shopping for yogurt and kefir with probiotic benefits, be sure to select those that say they contain "live" or "active" cultures. Also opt for plain or low-sugar varieties, since higher levels of sugar may worsen your diarrhea.

Consider a BRAT Diet

BRAT 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 Healthcare Provider

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 three days in adults or children
  • Bloody, black, or oily-looking stools
  • Abdominal pain that doesn't improve with a bowel movement
  • Dehydration symptoms, including dizziness, headache, weakness, and low urine output
  • High fever of over 100.4 F

You should also see a healthcare provider 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.

A Word From Verywell

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 at first to a bismuthsubsalicylate like Pepto-Bismol. Although loperamide can be very effective, it's important to get the OK from your healthcare provider before taking it, since it can worsen some forms of 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it better to stop diarrhea or let it run its course?

    It depends on the cause. Diarrhea from food poisoning is a protective reaction to expel the toxin from your body. Likewise, diarrhea from viral gastritis is your body's way of removing the virus from the body. In general, these illnesses should be allowed to run their course for a day or more.

    Diarrhea that lasts more than 48 hours or is accompanied by signs of dehydration should be treated. If you have diarrhea that persists for weeks or recurs frequently, see your doctor.

  • How do you treat diarrhea naturally?

    Diarrhea can often be treated with certain starchy foods. Bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, also known as the BRAT diet, are commonly recommended for firming up loose stools.

    Probiotics are also recommended for a natural treatment for diarrhea caused by antibiotics or viral gastritis. Look for probiotic strains listed as live, active cultures.

    If you have diarrhea, it is also important to stay hydrated. Be sure to drink plenty of water, herbal tea, or an electrolyte drink like Gatorade or Pedialyte. Avoid alcohol and caffeine that can make diarrhea worse.

  • What over-the-counter medications stop diarrhea?

    Two antidiarrheal medications are available over the counter bismuth subsalicylate, the active ingredient in Kaopectate and Pepto-Bismol, and loperamide, the active ingredient in Imodium A-D.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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