Understanding Diarrhea Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on February 05, 2023
5 min read

The best way for your doctor to figure out what's causing your diarrhea is to get some information from you.

They will want to know:

  • If there's blood or mucus in your diarrhea
  • How watery it is
  • How long you've had it
  • If anyone around you has it
  • If your urge to go is severe
  • Do you have belly pain, or pain in your bottom?
  • Do you have a fever?
  • Do you feel dizzy or confused?
  • Have you traveled anywhere recently?
  • Are you taking antibiotics, or have you recently finished some?
  • Do certain foods make it better or worse?

They also might want to get a sample of your stool to send for lab testing. They may order blood tests as well.

If your doctor thinks a specific food is causing your problem, they may ask you to stay away from that item for a while to see if it helps. A common example is intolerance to milk products, called lactose intolerance. If you have this, changes to your diet usually help.

If your doctor needs more information to figure out what's going on, you may need to have a test called a colonoscopy. Your doctor will use a snake-like tube that lets them see the walls of your colon and rectum.

Diarrhea should go away in a few days without treatment. Until you feel better, rest, drink enough fluids, and watch what you eat.

Probiotics may help. They’re pills or foods with “good” bacteria or yeast in them. They can replace “bad” bacteria that live in your gut. More research is needed to know if they soothe diarrhea. Ask your doctor if they’re right for you.

Not eating foods you have a hard time processing may stop diarrhea. If you’re not sure what to avoid, talk to a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). They can help you figure out the problem foods.

Your body loses water with each trip to the bathroom. If you lose too much, you can get dehydrated. It's important to keep drinking fluids. 

Drink clear liquids – water, broth, or fruit juice – during the day to stay hydrated. Try to get about 2-3 liters (8-12 cups) a day while you’re sick. You can sip them in small amounts between meals instead of while you eat. Your doctor might recommend oral rehydration therapy to replace salt, potassium, and other electrolytes your body loses when you have diarrhea. If you also have nausea, sip the liquids slowly.

There is no particular food group that is best for treating diarrhea, and some doctors no longer recommend the long-suggested BRAT diet of bananas, rice (white), applesauce, and toast. Still, all of these foods are good, valid options. Some other good choices are:

  • Potatoes
  • Smooth peanut butter
  • Skinless chicken or turkey
  • Yogurt

Avoid foods that can make diarrhea or gas worse, like:

  • Fatty or fried foods
  • Raw fruits and vegetables
  • Spicy foods
  • Caffeinated drinks, such as coffee and soda
  • Beans
  • Cabbage

Anti-Diarrheal Medications

Most of the time, diarrhea doesn't need to be treated. But some over-the-counter medicines can help you feel better, if you’re an adult. (These medications are not recommended for kids. If your child has diarrhea, check with your pediatrician before trying over-the-counter meds.)

Two types of meds relieve diarrhea in different ways:

  • Loperamide (Imodium) slows the movement of food through your intestines, which lets your body absorb more liquid.
  • Bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol) balances out how fluid moves through your digestive tract.

Are There Side Effects?

OTC anti-diarrheal medicine doesn’t usually cause problems. But like other drugs, there’s always a chance you could have unwanted side effects. Some are mild, while others are more serious. Check with your doctor if you get symptoms like:

  • Belly pain
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or throwing up
  • Ringing in your ears
  • A skin rash

Bismuth subsalicylate can make your tongue or poop dark. These changes typically go away once you quit using the drug. Very high doses of loperamide can cause serious heart problems or even death.

You may have more side effects if you take other drugs at the same time. Some medicines may not work as well if you take them with over-the-counter anti-diarrheal drugs. Talk to your doctor if you have questions.

Should You Take a Prescription?

Your doctor may prescribe medicine to help control your symptoms if you often have diarrhea because of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS-D). Here are some of these medicines and their effects:

Alosetron (Lotronex) is for some women with really serious IBS-D. Your doctor may give it to you if nothing else works. It could cause serious side effects, like constipation and less blood flow to your colon.

Eluxadoline (Viberzi) can slow down gut contractions. That might ease your pain. But you shouldn’t use it if you don’t have a gallbladder. It could lead to pancreatitis. That’s when your pancreas is inflamed.

Rifaximin (Xifaxan) is an antibiotic that works on certain bacteria in your gut. You’d likely only take it for 2 weeks. It’s sometimes used to treat traveler’s diarrhea.

Read the directions on the package. See how much of these medicines to take and when to take them. Don't take more than the label recommends – it won’t make the drug work better or faster. And don’t take more than one of these medicines at a time. Over-the-counter diarrhea medications are also not recommended in patients who have bloody stools or fever.

If you have any questions, call your doctor or pharmacist. Don't give Kaopectate or Pepto-Bismol to children – it could cause dangerous health problems. 

Who Shouldn’t Take Anti-Diarrheal Drugs?

Don’t try to treat your diarrhea at home if you have a fever or there’s blood in your poop. You may need an antibiotic or other medicine to get rid of bacteria or parasites.

Don’t take bismuth subsalicylate if you’re allergic to aspirin. Teenagers or kids with chickenpox or flu-like symptoms shouldn’t take it either. It raises their chances of Reye’s syndrome. That’s a rare condition that can hurt their brain and liver.

Don’t give anti-diarrheal drugs to babies or young kids. Ingredients like bismuth, magnesium, and aluminum can build up in their little bodies. The doctor can tell you which drugs are safe for children under 12.

Don’t take bismuth salicylate or other anti-diarrheal drugs if you’re pregnant without talking to your doctor first.

Get medical help if you:

  • Have severe pain in your belly or bottom
  • Have bloody or black poop
  • Get dehydrated – you feel very thirsty, pee less than usual, have dry mouth, and feel weak
  • Run a fever of 102 F or higher
  • Aren’t better in 48 hours