Treat at home or see a doctor?
Most infectious diarrhea or diarrhea from food poisoning will get better on its own. But if you have bloody stool or fever, this could be a sign of a bacterial infection that requires antibiotics. —Dr. Chandra Manuelpillai
Diarrhea is a common problem with a range of causes—from flu to a stomach virus to food poisoning. It means that you have loose, watery stool and sometimes abdominal pain. And it often sends you racing to the bathroom.
Many bouts of diarrhea are short-lived, lasting a couple of hours to a day. And it can be treated at home.
However, if your diarrhea lasts more than a day or so, or you have any of the following symptoms, call your doctor. It may be a sign of a bacterial infection—and you will need an antibiotic—or of a more chronic digestive problem.
Take an anti-diarrheal medicine
There are several types of over-the-counter (OTC) medications that will make your stool less watery and calm your gut.
But they are not recommended if you have a stomach virus or food poisoning. Diarrhea is your body's way of getting rid of the infection so slowing it down only prolongs the infection.
Call your doctor first. These can be dangerous in children so contact your child’s doctor before giving to them.
- Loperamide (Imodium) slows the gut to allow more water to be absorbed back into the body. It can make diarrhea less watery. Take it after your first loose bowel.
- Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate) works in multiple ways including decreasing intestinal inflammation, slowing your digestion, reducing stomach acid, and potentially killing or slowing the growth of the bacteria that is causing the diarrhea.
- Though fiber is often recommended for constipation, it can also help with diarrhea. Adding a fiber supplement like psyllium (Metamucil) to a drink can bulk up watery stool.
Drink plenty of fluids
The most important thing to understand is diarrhea can lead to dehydration, particularly in the very young or very old. It is very important to look for signs and symptoms of dehydration including increased thirst, decreased urination, fatigue, dizziness or confusion. —Dr. Manuelpillai
Diarrhea causes you to lose a lot of fluids, so you need to drink liquids to prevent dehydration. It may be easier to take frequent sips of liquid, like water or broth, rather than trying to down a big glass of water.
If you have frequent episodes of diarrhea or you notice signs of dehydration, you may need to drink a rehydration liquid, like a sports drink (Gatorade) or Pedialyte for children. These contain electrolyte—minerals that are also lost when you have diarrhea. There’s also some evidence that chamomile tea and lemongrass tea can help calm the stomach.
Avoid beverages with caffeine, which can dehydrate you. Also avoid milk, which can irritate your stomach.
Eat bland foods
At first, you may not want to eat anything until your stomach starts to feel better. It’s fine to stick with liquids like broth, clear soups, or Jell-o. Move on to bland foods and then slowly get back to your normal diet as your diarrhea improves.
Probiotics are “good” bacteria, similar to naturally occurring bacteria in your digestive tract. They are thought to help restore the balance in your gut when you’re fighting a virus or bacterial infection. Studies show that probiotics can reduce the length of time that you have diarrhea.
Two well-researched probiotics, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, are sold in a powder form. You can add to drinks or take in a capsule. Probiotics are also in certain foods such as live or active culture yogurt, fermented and unfermented milk, miso, tempeh, and some juices and soy beverages.
Avoid irritating foods
- Avoid dairy products. They contain lactose, which may be hard to digest when you have diarrhea. One exception is yogurt, which contains “good” bacteria that can help settle your stomach.
- Avoid greasy, high-fat, and spicy foods. They can upset your stomach.
- Avoid alcohol. It can speed up your digestive system, contributing to diarrhea.