The Dos and Don’ts of Treating Diarrhea

Published: September 03, 2021
By Douglas Lasch, PharmD Candidate, Class of 2022

One of the more common gastrointestinal (GI) problems many people have is diarrhea. General symptoms include increased stool liquidity or frequency, which generally means more than three bowel movements per day.

What causes diarrhea?

  • Viruses – Enter your body through the oral-fecal route and are the most common cause of diarrhea in children. Symptoms will likely go away on their own after a week at most.
  • Bacteria – Enter your body by consuming contaminated and/or improperly cooked foods. This is commonly referred to as food poisoning. You may or may not require medication to treat.
  • Medications – Some medications may cause diarrhea that may lessen over time. Other medications may require a change in dose or you may need to switch to a different medication.
  • Medical conditions – Diseases that affect the stomach, small intestine, or colon, such as Crohn's disease or problems with how the colon functions, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Stress and anxiety may also cause diarrhea. Symptoms may go away on their own, require treatment, or a lifestyle change.
  • Food intolerance – Sensitivities or intolerance to certain foods or components of food may cause diarrhea. For example, people with lactose intolerance may need to avoid certain dairy foods or use lactase enzyme products.

How can I treat diarrhea?
Occasional episodes of diarrhea can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medications and by staying hydrated. Keep in mind the following if you choose to treat it yourself:

  • DO ensure that you are staying hydrated by consuming electrolyte-rich fluids such as soup/broth, fruit juices, and sports drinks. Avoid sugary drinks when possible as this may cause diarrhea to worsen
  • DO talk to your pharmacist about your symptoms before treating diarrhea with OTC medications.
  • DO NOT treat with OTC medications if you experience any of the following: fever, persistent vomiting, severe abdominal pain, black or tarry stools, unexplained weight loss, diarrhea while traveling, or no relief after two weeks.
  • DO NOT stop taking medications that you believe may be causing your diarrhea. Talk to your doctor first.
  • DO NOT take multiple OTC medications at once, unless directed by a medical professional. These medications may cause further GI issues when taken together.

Available OTC medications include:

  • Loperamide (Imodium) – Slows the movement of the intestines so your body has more time to absorb water and electrolytes from the stool.
  • Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol; Maalox) – Reacts with your stomach acid to improve stool consistency, reduce stool frequency, and relieve abdominal cramping.

Most cases of diarrhea can be avoided with proper hygiene, handwashing, and food handling. For mild cases, be sure to stay hydrated. Your pharmacist can provide a recommendation for an OTC medication to help alleviate your symptoms after asking you a few questions about when your symptoms started, what makes your symptoms better/worse, what medical conditions you may have, and what medications you may be taking.

Visit your doctor if you have symptoms that last more than two weeks, have a fever, persistent vomiting, severe abdominal pain, black or tarry stools, unexplained weight loss, or diarrhea while traveling.

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