What is it
Diarrhea occurs when too much fluid is passed along with the stool during a bowel movement. Normally, fluids in the digestive tract are mostly reabsorbed through the intestinal walls, so that fecal matter solidifies as it travels through the digestive tract. If something interferes with the effectiveness of this process, you’ll pass excess fluid as you defecate.
- A change in bowel habits with unformed, watery and/or frequent bowel movements.
- Abdominal pain and cramping.
- Excessive gas.
What causes it
Simple diarrhea is common and has many causes. The leading cause is bacterial or viral infection from eating contaminated food or drinking water. In addition, specific types of diarrhea can occur after taking antibiotics as well as from excessive use of certain over-the-counter antacids that contain magnesium. People with lactose intolerance who have trouble digesting milk products may also suffer from diarrhea if they eat dairy products. Stress is another common cause.
What if you do nothing
Fortunately, simple diarrhea is usually self-limiting it gets better without treatment in a day or two as long as you drink plenty of fluids. However, diarrhea can be serious, particularly for children and the elderly, because of the risk of dehydration the excessive loss of body fluids and salts needed for normal metabolism.
You can obtain symptomatic relief with the following steps.
First and foremost, drink fluids
You need to replace the water you’ve lost and in more severe cases restore the proper balance of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, and chloride salts) that your body requires for the proper functioning of many organs, including the heart. Glucose or some other carbohydrate should also be consumed, to aid the absorption of electrolytes.
For adults with little or no dehydration, drinking several types of clear liquids fruit juices, clear broths, flat (de-fizzed) soft drinks provides adequate rehydration. Sip small amounts for the first few hours, increasing your intake to as much as your stomach can handle. Try to drink at least one pint of fluid (16 ounces) every hour.
For a severe attack of diarrhea, or when a child has diarrhea
It is more effective to consume an oral rehydration solution, which you can buy or make yourself. These solutions don’t taste very good, however, and some people will balk at drinking them. A satisfactory second choice is a sports drink named Gatorade. Sports drinks normally don’t consists of sufficient potassium or sodium, and their high sugar content can occasionally worsen the diarrhea. But they are better than plain water, caffeine-free soda, or apple juice.
To make up your own oral rehydration solution, dissolve a half teaspoon of salt and four teaspoons of sugar in one quart of water. (Be accurate too much salt or sugar can cause further dehydration.) Younger children should drink one of the commercial rehydration solutions.
Avoid alcohol, caffeine, milk and dairy products
Any products containing the sweeteners sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol, most commonly found in sugarless gums, vitamins, and diet foods.
If you suspect food poisoning
You are probably better off letting the diarrhea run its course; you want to get the harmful bacteria out of your system. But in that case consult your doctor just to be sure. (Traveler’s diarrhea is a specific problem that may require different treatment strategies.)
If you suspect diarrhea is caused by a drug you are taking, call your doctor
This is especially true if you are taking an antibiotic. Also, stop using any over-the-counter antacids or laxatives until you’ve spoken to your doctor.
Be careful with antidiarrheal medications
Wait a few hours after the onset of diarrhea before using one of these medications. Diarrhea is a purging of the intestines, so you want to give your system a chance to get rid of whatever irritant is causing the problem. Once that occurs, some of the medications designed to alleviate diarrhea can be useful in certain cases. Also, don’t use these medications if you have a fever or if there is blood or pus present in your stool.
Over-the-counter products considered helpful for run-of-the-mill diarrhea include those containing loperamide (brand name Imodium A-D) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol). Both are available in generic formulations that are just as effective as the name brands. Diphenoxylate hydrochloride (Lomotil) is an effective prescription medication. None of these products should be used, however, for diarrhea that is caused by taking an antibiotic.
Products containing attapulgite (for example, Donnagel or Kaopectate) or kaolin and pectin (for example, Kaolin Pectin or Kao-Spen) are generally not effective.
Don’t stop eating
Cutting back on food aggravates dehydration and limits the nourishment necessary for the body to overcome dehydration. Follow the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast). If you can’t hold down any food, continue to drink rehydration solutions, defizzed soda, or an eight-ounce glass of fruit juice to which a pinch of table salt and a half teaspoon of table sugar have been added.
The most easily prevented cause of diarrhea is food poisoning. You simply need to take precautions when preparing, cooking, and storing food. Above all, don’t consume any unpasturized foods or beverages.
Also, avoid foods you know your body can’t tolerate well. People who are lactose-intolerant should avoid the dairy products that seem to trigger symptoms or should drink milk treated with lactase. Avoid taking large doses of vitamin C; too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea.