You may blame it on a 24-hour bug or something you ate, but if you're like the average American, you'll suffer once or twice this year from diarrhea: frequent, watery bowel movements that may be accompanied by painful cramps or nausea and vomiting.
Diarrhea is uncomfortable and unpleasant, but generally no big deal in otherwise healthy adults. However, if diarrhea becomes a chronic condition, the situation changes. Or if it affects the very young, the elderly, or the chronically ill, it can be dangerous. And if you're not careful to drink enough fluids, you could find yourself complicating what should have been a simple enough situation.
There are essentially two types of diarrhea: acute and chronic. Thankfully, the vast majority of diarrhea is acute, or short term. This type of diarrhea keeps you on the toilet for a couple of days but doesn't stick around long. Acute diarrhea is also known as non-inflammatory diarrhea. Its symptoms are what most people associate with the condition: watery, frequent stools accompanied by stomach cramps, gas and nausea.
Acute diarrhea usually has a bacterial or viral culprit. Gastroenteritis, mistakenly called the "stomach flu," is one of the most common infections that cause diarrhea. Gastroenteritis can be caused by many different viruses. Eating or drinking foods contaminated with bacteria can also cause diarrhea. Other causes of acute diarrhea are lactose intolerance, sweeteners such as sorbitol, over-the-counter antacids that contain magnesium, too much vitamin C, and some antibiotics.
In this article, you will find the home remedies you can follow to keep yourself healthy while you are battling diarrhea. You will also find out what to do in more extreme cases of diarrhea.
You can lose a lot of liquid in diarrhea, but you also lose electrolytes, minerals such as sodium and potassium that are critical in the running of your body. Here's how to replace what you're losing:
- Drink plenty of fluids. Consume two quarts (eight cups) of fluids a day, three quarts (12 cups) if you're running a fever. Plain water lacks electrolytes, but it's a good, gentle-on-the-tummy option that can help you replace some of the fluid that you've lost. Other choices include weak tea with a little sugar, sports drinks such as Gatorade, flat soda pop (decaffeinated flavors such as ginger ale are best), and fruit juices other than apple and prune, which have a laxative effect.
- Buy an over-the-counter electrolyte replacement formula. Pedialyte, Rehydralyte, and Ricelyte are available without a prescription from your local drugstore. These formulas contain fluids and minerals in the proper proportion.
Whatever you choose to drink, keep it cool; it will be less irritating that way. Sip, don't guzzle; it will be easier on your insides if you take frequent sips of liquid instead of guzzling down a glass at a time.
Look for yogurt with live cultures. These "cultures" are friendly bacteria that can go in and line your intestines, providing you with protection from the bad guys. If you've already got diarrhea, yogurt can help produce lactic acid in your intestines, which can kill off the nasty bacteria and get you feeling better, faster.
Live-culture yogurt (kefir) is also the best way to treat diarrhea caused by oral antibiotics. The antibiotics kill beneficial bacteria in the intestines, but live-culture products replenish those bacteria. Better still, use these from the time you begin the medication, and you may avoid the diarrhea altogether.
If you're not very young or old or suffering from any chronic illness, it may be safe just to put up with it for a couple of days. After all, it's often your body's natural way of getting rid of something that shouldn't be there to begin with.
Try resting in bed and sipping any broth, but have it lukewarm instead of hot, and add a little salt to it if it's not already salty. A heating pad on your belly may also help relieve abdominal cramps.
Stopping the diarrhea with an over-the-counter (OTC) medication may not be the best thing for your body, since the diarrhea probably reflects your body's attempt to get rid of a troublesome bug. If you do feel it's necessary, however, Pepto-Bismol is probably the safest OTC antidiarrheal medicine. It also appears to have a mild antibacterial effect, useful against traveler's diarrhea, which is usually bacteria-related.
Again, you're probably better off going without antidiarrheal medication. If you absolutely need some relief, however, you can try one of these OTC medications. Imodium A-D slows down the motility, or movement, of the gut; Kaopectate absorbs fluid. Elderly patients should use these medications only with their doctor's approval, because decreased motility can be dangerous in an infection and can lead to bigger problems.
Avoid milk, cheese, and other dairy products (except yogurt, unless you don't usually tolerate it well) while you have diarrhea as well as for one to three weeks after it stops. The small intestine, where milk is digested, is affected by diarrhea and simply won't work as well for a while.
Just as it stimulates your nervous system, caffeine jump-starts your intestines. And that's the last thing you need when you have diarrhea. High concentrations of sugar can also increase diarrhea. The sugar in fruit can do the same.
Lastly, steer clear of greasy or high-fiber foods. These are harder for your gut to handle right now. It needs foods that are kinder and gentler such as soup, gelatin, rice, noodles, bananas, potatoes, toast, cooked carrots, soda crackers, and skinless white-meat chicken.
Chamomile is good for treating intestinal inflammation, and it has antispasmodic properties as well. You can brew yourself a cup of chamomile tea from packaged tea bags, or you can buy chamomile flowers and steep 1 teaspoon of them and 1 teaspoon of peppermint leaves in a cup of boiling water for fifteen minutes. Drink 3 cups a day. Also the tannins in ordinary black tea have an anti-diarrheal effect.
Starchy foods, such as precooked rice or tapioca cereals, can help ease your tummy. Prepare the cereal according to the directions on the box, making it as thick as you can stomach it. Just avoid adding too much sugar or salt, as these can aggravate diarrhea. It's probably a good idea to avoid oatmeal, since it's high in fiber, and your intestines can't tolerate the added bulk during a bout with diarrhea.
Potatoes are another starchy food that can help restore nutrients and comfort your stomach. But eating French fries won't help. Fried foods tend to aggravate an aching tummy. Other root vegetables, such as carrots (cooked, of course) are also easy on an upset stomach, and they are loaded with nutrients.
Cooked white rice is another starchy food that can be handled by someone recovering from diarrhea.
Blueberry root is a long-time folk remedy for diarrhea. In Sweden, doctors prescribe a soup made with dried blueberries for tummy problems. Blueberries are rich in anthocyanosides, which have antioxidant and antibacterial properties, as well as tannins, which combat diarrhea.
Orange peel tea is a folk remedy that is believed to aid in digestion. Place a chopped orange peel (preferably from an organic orange, as peels otherwise may contain pesticides and dyes) into a pot and cover with 1 pint boiling water. Let it stand until the water is cooled. You can sweeten it with sugar or honey.
Science has given the nod to this folk remedy--but this one is for adults only (safety for children has not been established). Mix 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds with water and drink up.
With these time-honored home remedies under your belt, you should be able to significantly reduce the severity and discomfort of diarrhea. If you have chronic, or long-term, diarrhea that comes on suddenly and stays for weeks, you may have a more serious condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome or a severe food allergy. Be sure to see a doctor.
To see all of our home remedies and the conditions they treat, see our Home Remedies Guide or view more information on diarrhea on the next page.