How is diarrhea treated?

In most cases, you can treat mild and uncomplicated diarrhea at home. By using an over-the-counter product like bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol® or Kaopectate®) you’ll usually feel better very quickly.

However, over-the-counter medications aren’t always the solution. If your diarrhea is caused by an infection or parasite, you’ll need to see a healthcare provider for treatment. A general rule is not to use over-the-counter medications for diarrhea if you also have a fever or blood in your stool. In those cases, call your healthcare provider.

When diarrhea lasts for a long period of time (several weeks), your healthcare provider will base your treatment on the cause. This could involve a few different treatment options, including:

  • Antibiotics: Your healthcare provider might prescribe an antibiotic or other medication to treat an infection or parasite that’s causing the diarrhea.
  • Medication for a specific condition: Diarrhea can be a sign of several other medical conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, microscopic colitis, or bacterial overgrowth. Once the cause of the diarrhea is identified, diarrhea can usually be controlled.
  • Probiotics: Groupings of good bacteria, probiotics are sometimes used to re-establish a healthy biome to combat diarrhea. Introducing probiotics can be helpful in some cases and some healthcare providers feel that it’s worth a try. Always talk to your provider before starting a probiotic or any kind of supplement.

How should I take over-the-counter medications for diarrhea?

It’s important to always follow the instructions on the packaging when you take an over-the-counter medication for diarrhea. The rules for managing diarrhea in an adult are different than in children. Always call your child’s healthcare provider before giving your child any type of medication for diarrhea.

A tip for managing diarrhea in an adult with over-the-counter medication includes:

  • Taking two tablespoons of Kaopectate® or two tablespoons of Pepto-Bismol® after each loose stool. Do not take more than eight doses in 24 hours.

Can I manage diarrhea without taking any medication?

When you have an acute case of diarrhea, you can often take care of it without needing any medication. Several things you can do to care for diarrhea include:

  • Drinking plenty of water and other electrolyte balanced fluids (like diluted and pulp-free fruit juices, broths, sports drinks (Gatorade®) and caffeine-free sodas). Make sure to hydrate throughout day. Your body loses water each time you have diarrhea. By drinking plenty of extra fluids, you are protecting your body from dehydration.
  • Changing your diet. Instead of picking greasy, fatty or fried foods, go for the BRAT diet:
    • B: Bread (white bread).
    • R: Rice (white rice).
    • A: Applesauce.
    • T: Toast (white bread).
  • Cutting back on caffeine. Foods and drinks that have caffeine can have a mild laxative effect, which can make your diarrhea worse. Foods and drinks with caffeine include coffee, diet sodas, strong tea/green tea, and even chocolate.
  • Avoiding foods and drinks that give you gas. If you experience cramping in your stomach with diarrhea, it could help to cut back on things that cause gas. These can include beans, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, beer and carbonated beverages.

Sometimes, diarrhea can also make you lactose intolerant. This is usually temporary and it means that you need to avoid items with lactose (dairy products) until your diarrhea is gone.

Are there any foods that can help my diarrhea go away?

You actually can help your diarrhea by changing your diet. Certain low-fiber foods can help make your stool more solid.

If you have diarrhea, try adding these foods into your diet:

  • Potatoes.
  • Rice (white).
  • Noodles.
  • Bananas.
  • Applesauce.
  • White bread.
  • Chicken or turkey without the skin.
  • Lean ground beef.
  • Fish.

What do I do if my baby or young child has diarrhea?

If your child has severe diarrhea, call your healthcare provider. Young children are at a higher risk of dehydration than adults. You also can’t treat a child’s diarrhea the same way you would an adult case. Over-the-counter medications can be dangerous in young children and all treatments of diarrhea in children should be guided by their healthcare provider. It’s important to keep your child hydrated. Your provider will help you determine the best way to do this, but options often include:

  • Breast milk.
  • Formula.
  • Electrolyte drinks (Pedialyte®) for older children – this is not recommended for babies.

The best option to keep your child hydrated might change as the child ages. Always check with your provider before giving your child a new liquid or treatment of any kind.

If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s diarrhea, don’t hesitate to call your provider.

How can I relieve discomfort in the rectal area caused by diarrhea?

Diarrhea often means frequent trips to the bathroom. This can cause discomforts like:

  • Itching.
  • Burning.
  • Pain during bowel movements.

If you’re experiencing any of these discomforts, there are a few things you can do to help, including:

  • Sitting in a few inches of lukewarm water in a bathtub.
  • Patting your rectal area dry with a clean soft towel after getting out of the tub or shower. Don’t rub the area dry because that will only make the irritation worse.
  • Applying petroleum jelly or a hemorrhoid cream to your anus.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/13/2020.

References

  • US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Diarrhea. Accessed 4/17/2020.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diarrhea: Common Illness, Global Killer. Accessed 4/17/2020.
  • Merck Manual Professional Version. Diarrhea. Accessed 4/17/2020.

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