When diarrhea strikes, you want relief fast. And with good reason. Treatment helps you feel better and keeps you from getting dehydrated and losing too many nutrients. You may run to the pharmacy for an over-the-counter medicine or call your doctor and ask for advice. If you get diarrhea often, you probably already have a go-to treatment in your medicine cabinet.

How well does that treatment work for you? And are you confident that it's what you need? Ask yourself these questions to make sure you're on the right track.

Is an over-the-counter drug all I need?

Many people get a short-term bout of diarrhea -- meaning loose, watery stools three or more times a day -- about once a year. For many of them, taking over-the-counter medicines or simply waiting it out (and staying hydrated) is usually all they need to feel better.

You can buy several types of diarrhea drugs without a prescription: bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate) and loperamide (Imodium). These medicines can help slow or stop loose, watery stools. But you shouldn't take them for very long.

Don't take bismuth subsalicylate or loperamide for more than 2 days at a time. If you still have diarrhea after that, check with your doctor. Always read medicine labels carefully and talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions.

You should also see your doctor if you find that you rely on these medicines often. They may help you feel better temporarily, but it's important to find out what is causing your diarrhea in the first place.

What are the side effects?

Most people who take over-the-counter diarrhea medicines don't have problems with the medicines. But you should call your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Stomach pain, swelling, or bulging
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Ringing in the ears or hearing loss
  • Rash or itching

Taking bismuth subsalicylate may turn your tongue or your stool a dark brown or black color, but this is harmless and temporary.

Taking diarrhea medicine along with other drugs may cause more side effects or make those other drugs less effective, so be sure to see if the label warns of a problem with any meds you take. If you're not sure, your doctor or pharmacist can help.

Are there reasons I shouldn't take over-the-counter drugs?

Don't take an over-the-counter diarrhea medicine if you have a fever, rash, or bloody or black stools. These symptoms may mean that you have an infection or other serious condition that needs to be treated by a doctor. Over-the-counter medicines only treat the symptoms -- not the cause of diarrhea.

If you're allergic to aspirin, don't take bismuth subsalicylate. These medicines are made with a similar ingredient, salicylic acid.

What about prescription options?

If you have a long-term condition, like irritable bowel syndrome with diarrhea (IBS-D), your doctor may prescribe a medicine to help with your diarrhea.

Alosetron (Lotronex) is approved to treat women with severe IBS whose main symptom is diarrhea, but only in some cases. Ask your doctor if it's right for you.

Eluxadoline (Viberzi) is a pill for IBS-D that you take twice a day, every day. In clinical trials, people who took it had more relief from diarrhea and stomach pain than those who got a placebo drug. But more studies are needed to know which people will benefit most from it.

Rifaximin (Xifaxan) is a pill that you take three times a day for 14 days. It's for the treatment of moderate to severe IBS with bloating but no constipation. For some people, this 2-week course can provide relief from diarrhea and stomach pain for anywhere from 6 to 24 weeks. If symptoms come back, you can take Xifaxan again up to two times.

These medicines may not make your diarrhea go away completely, but they might help you keep your symptoms under control. Your doctor can talk with you about the pros and cons.

Other diseases, such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, can also cause diarrhea. If your doctor finds that you have one of these diseases, you'll get prescription treatment to ease your symptoms.

What else can I do to feel better?

Diarrhea often stops on its own. When you have it, stay hydrated by drinking clear fluids like water, fruit juice, or soup broth. You should also avoid foods that could further upset your stomach, like dairy products, fatty or spicy foods, or foods that are high in fiber.

Taking a probiotic supplement may also help you have less diarrhea. Probiotics are healthy bacteria that help fight bad germs in your gut. As with any supplement, you should check with your doctor first.

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