Diarrhea Treatments

Relief may depend on the cause and severity of your diarrhea.

Diarrhea, which occurs when a person experiences watery or loose stools, can be frustrating—and sometimes embarrassing—to deal with. Fortunately, there are ways to stop diarrhea that include staying hydrated, anti-diarrheal medications, rehydration solutions, diet changes, antibiotics, probiotics, and getting treatment for the underlying causes of diarrhea.

A severe or sudden bout of diarrhea, meaning three or more watery or loose stools a day, often resolves in a matter of days, depending on what's causing it. An infection is often the culprit.¹

Chronic diarrhea, lasting two weeks or more, may be due to food intolerances or allergies; infections; digestive tract issues; or long-term medication use, among other causes.¹

The best diarrhea treatment option for you may depend on the cause and severity of your symptoms. Some treatments will help to stop diarrhea, while others will help manage symptoms.

Woman drinks water
Olga Sibirskaya/Stocksy

Treatments for Diarrhea

Managing a sudden case of diarrhea typically begins with replenishing fluids and tweaking your diet. Certain medications may help alleviate symptoms. Other medicines are intended to treat severe symptoms or chronic diarrhea.

Stay hydrated

People with diarrhea are at risk of dehydration.¹ It is important to take steps to prevent this.

Taking regular sips of water throughout the day will help prevent dehydration. Adults experiencing diarrhea should try to drink liquids that have sugar, salt, and water. Examples of this include:¹, ²

  • Water
  • Broths that are salty
  • Water and juice mixed together
  • Fruit juice
  • Soda that doesn't contain caffeine
  • Sport drinks

Children with diarrhea should not be given fruit juice or soft drinks as these can worsen symptoms. Small sips of oral hydration solution are a better choice.³

Babies with diarrhea should be breastfed or bottle-fed as normal.¹

The color of urine can be a useful indication of hydration levels. Urine that is light yellow to nearly clear in appearance suggests you are drinking enough liquids.¹

If you are experiencing signs of dehydration and experiencing diarrhea, you should contact your doctor. Possible signs include:⁴

  • Thirst
  • Dark yellow urine
  • Headache
  • Sticky or dry mouth
  • Cramping muscles
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Rapid heartbeat

Anti-diarrheal medications

Anti-diarrheal medications are available over the counter without a prescription. Options include:⁵

  • Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate)
  • Loperamide (Imodium)

Bismuth subsalicylate works by reducing inflammation and balancing the movement of fluid in the intestines. It also stops viruses and bacteria that can cause diarrhea from growing in the intestines and stomach.⁶

Loperamide works differently by slowing down how fast food moves through the bowel. This helps fluids be absorbed into the body. It also allows for more formed stools and less diarrhea.⁶

Anti-diarrheal medications should not be taken if the cause of diarrhea is a parasite, bacteria, or "stomach bug." If this is the case, the body needs to rid itself of the parasite or bacteria causing diarrhea. Taking anti-diarrheal medication in this instance may make symptoms worse. A doctor will be able to advise if the diarrhea is caused by a parasite or bacterial infection.⁶

People taking prescription medication should always speak with their healthcare provider before taking anti-diarrheal medications purchased over the counter.

It is important to take the medication exactly as instructed on the label. Taking more won't help the medicine work more effectively or quickly. Taking more than instructed can also be dangerous.⁶

It is important only to use one over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medication at one time unless a healthcare professional has advised doing otherwise.⁶

Rehydration solution

A healthcare provider may recommend the use of oral rehydration solutions to prevent dehydration.⁷

Oral rehydration solution is available without a prescription at drugstores and supermarkets. Brand names include Enfalyte and Pedialyte. It is made up of glucose as well a number of electrolytes like:⁸

  • Magnesium
  • Chloride
  • Potassium
  • Sodium
  • Phosphorous

Children can safely be given oral rehydration solutions.²

Oral rehydration solution will not necessarily reduce diarrhea, and the purpose of taking it is not to shorten the duration of diarrhea but to prevent dehydration.⁹

Dehydration can be serious. Among people who are otherwise healthy, the risk of fatality during a period of diarrhea is most common in the oldest adults. People who are elderly and have diarrhea should receive balanced electrolyte rehydration.⁹

Diet modifications

Those experiencing diarrhea will likely need to make changes to their diet. It is a good idea to eat smaller meals throughout the day rather than three large meals. Salty foods like soup or pretzels are good options.¹⁰

Some people may be advised to follow a BRAT diet for a short time when they have diarrhea. The BRAT diet stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. It may be recommended for those experiencing an upset stomach with diarrhea, vomiting, or both.¹¹

The BRAT diet focuses on bland foods and is appropriate for both adults and children. The foods in the BRAT diet can assist in creating firm stools. The foods are low-fiber and starchy and can help "bind" things together.

Foods like bananas, which contain potassium, can help replace some of the nutrients the body loses during diarrhea. Bland foods may also be helpful as they don't irritate the stomach. Other foods like plain potatoes, saltine crackers, and broth can also be eaten on the BRAT diet.¹¹

Some foods should be avoided when experiencing diarrhea. These include:¹¹

  • Sugary foods
  • Dairy products
  • Fatty foods

When you start to feel better, and your symptoms improve, it is important to gradually return to a normal diet. The BRAT diet will help during diarrhea, but it doesn't provide all the necessary nutrients of a healthy diet. Typically, you should be able to return to a normal diet within 24 to 48 hours after having diarrhea.¹¹

Antibiotics

Antibiotics for diarrhea are only recommended in certain circumstances. Evidence suggests antibiotics should not be used in a routine acute diarrheal infection unless there is a high likelihood of bacteria causing diarrhea.⁹

Community-acquired diarrhea does not typically warrant the use of antibiotics as the cause of diarrhea in this context is often viral in nature. This includes infections like:⁹

  • Rotavirus
  • Norovirus
  • Adenovirus

If a healthcare provider suspects diarrhea is due to a parasite or bacterial infection, they may prescribe antibiotics that target the infection.⁵

Probiotics

The evidence supporting the use of probiotics for treating diarrhea is limited.⁹

In some cases, a healthcare provider may recommend taking probiotics. These contain live microorganisms similar to the microorganisms inhabiting the digestive tract.⁵

There is some evidence to suggest probiotics may be useful in preventing acute diarrhea that is associated with the use of antibiotics. However, the American College of Gastroenterology states that there is not enough research to support the use of probiotics in the treatment of acute diarrhea in adults.⁹

Treating underlying causes

Diarrhea can be caused by a number of factors, and different underlying causes may require different treatments.¹

  • Inflammatory bowel diseases that cause diarrhea may require prescription medication to reduce inflammation in the bowel.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome may require changes to diet.
  • Celiac disease requires strict removal of gluten from the diet.
  • Bile acid malabsorption may be treated with medications that prevent the build-up of bile in the digestive tract.

When To See a Healthcare Provider

In many cases, diarrhea will clear up in a few days without the need for treatment or seeing a healthcare provider.¹

However, you should contact your healthcare provider if you have diarrhea and:²

  • You have a fever of 102 degrees F or higher
  • You are showing signs of dehydration
  • You are an adult with diarrhea for more than two days
  • Your child has had diarrhea for more than 24 hours
  • You have severe pain in the rectum or abdomen
  • You have stool that is tarry or black
  • Your stool contains pus
  • Your stool contains blood

Recap

Diarrhea can be unpleasant, but there are a number of treatment options available. These range from home remedies like staying hydrated and eating a bland diet to over the counter medications or, in specific cases, antibiotics.

If you are concerned about any symptoms you are experiencing, don't hesitate to reach out to a healthcare provider for support.

Sources:

  1. Nemeth V, Pfleghaar N. Diarrhea. [Updated 2021 Nov 29]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-.
  2. MedlinePlus. Diarrhea.
  3. KidsHealth. Dehydration.
  4. MedlinePlus. Dehydration.
  5. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Treatment for diarrhea.
  6. American Academy of Family PhysiciaAnti-diarrhealheal medicine: OTC relief for diarrhea.
  7. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Treatment for Diarrhea.
  8. National Cancer Institute. Oral Rehydration Solution.
  9. Riddle, Mark S MD, DrPH; DuPont, Herbert L MD; Connor, Bradley A MD ACG Clinical Guideline: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention of Acute Diarrheal Infections in Adults, American Journal of Gastroenterology: May 2016 - Volume 111 - Issue 5 - p 602-622 doi: 10.1038/ajg.2016.126
  10. MedlinePlus. When you have diarrhea.
  11. American Academy of Family Physicians. BRAT diet: recovering from an upset stomach.
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