manage diarrhea

How to Manage Diarrhea: Medications and Home Treatments

Thousands of people use various methods to manage diarrhea. Diarrhea is one of the most common digestive problems worldwide. In the US, acute diarrhea is the second most reported condition next to respiratory infections. Diarrhea and its symptoms can be very uncomfortable and can lead to serious complications. The condition is also a leading cause of death in young children, especially in the developing world.

Acute diarrhea is an abrupt episode of three or more loose stools daily that lasts a few days to two weeks. Chronic diarrhea is an episode of loose, watery stools lasting longer than two weeks. Some doctors classify diarrhea that lasts between two and four weeks as “persistent diarrhea.” However, in this article, we will only discuss acute and chronic diarrhea.

Since the condition is so common, what do doctors prescribe for diarrhea? Antidiarrheal medication can relieve symptoms. However, it is also important to treat the underlying cause of diarrhea. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of causes, so identifying the one can take some time.

If you struggle with acute or chronic diarrhea, make sure to read to the end of this article. We’ll discuss which medications to take and how to manage the condition.

manage diarrhea - doctor looking at pills

Antidiarrheal Medication, Antibiotics, and More

Antidiarrheal drugs are very helpful in managing diarrhea severe cases. The most commonly prescribed medications are bismuth, subsalicylate, and antimotility drugs like loperamide.

Bismuth subsalicylate is an antibacterial and antisecretory and helps absorb toxins. Do not use this in case of high fever and/or bloody diarrhea. This medication can aggravate intestinal infections. It can also lead to dangerous complications like hemolytic uremic syndrome in cases of Siga toxin and E.coli infections. Side effects of bismuth subsalicylate include a black-colored tongue, black stools, constipation, and ringing in the ears. Ask a doctor before giving this medication to a child under the age of 12.

Loperamide decreases gut peristalsis and fluid secretion. This increases transit time and the absorption of fluids and electrolytes from the digestive tract. Children under the age of 6 should not use this medication. Loperamide can treat acute infectious diarrhea and chronic cases. It can also correct vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

You should take antibiotics in cases of gut infections. For example, moderate-severe cases of traveler’s diarrhea and Shigella infections require antibiotics. Other bacterial infections are self-limited and do not need an antibiotic.

In cases of chronic diarrhea, you must identify the underlying cause to further treat and manage it. Doctors can find the cause with blood and stool tests, colon biopsies, and abdominal ultrasounds. Once they find a specific diagnosis, they can give empirical treatment.

manage diarrhea - woman drinking water from bottle

Non-Drug Treatment Options

There are also home remedies and non-drug options to treat acute and chronic diarrhea. This is especially helpful if you don’t have an infection or cannot see a doctor right away.

Fluid and Electrolyte Replacement

One of the most common complications, especially in acute diarrhea, is the loss of fluids and electrolytes. Drink plenty of water with small amounts of sugar and salt to avoid dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Salt and sugar help the gut absorb more fluids.

Try to drink six glasses of water daily. Add fat-free chicken broth, tea, and artificial-free sports drinks to your diet. Coconut water also provides good hydration and contains electrolytes such as:

  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Sodium

Rather than drinking liquids with meals, have them between eating. Sip small amounts of water throughout the day.

Watch What You Eat

What you eat can aggravate diarrhea symptoms. If you’re experiencing diarrhea, watch what you consume as it can make it worse.

In infants and children, avoid the following foods for a few days:

  • Undiluted fruit juice
  • Sugary, carbonated drinks
  • Candy
  • Sweets
  • Full-Fat dairy products
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Chickpeas
  • Corn

Adults should also avoid dairy products, fatty food, and fruits and vegetables that cause excessive gas. Limit caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods as well. Be sure to consume fatty food in moderation because fats are difficult to digest.

Some natural supplements can also help manage diarrhea symptoms and causes including peppermint and probiotics.


The BRAT diet stands for banana, rice, applesauce, and toast. For a long time, the BRAT diet came highly recommended to help manage acute diarrhea. It is low in fiber, easy to digest, and replaces some nutrients such as potassium and magnesium.

Recently, health officials changed the recommendations in support of adding more foods to the BRAT diet. They included the following foods to the list:

  • Diluted fruit juices
  • Broths
  • Watermelon
  • Cooked carrots
  • Green beans
  • Rice cereals
  • Crackers
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Fish
  • Potatoes
  • Oatmeal

Adults can also suck on ice cubes (not chew) during the first few days of illness. Then they can move to sip water, clear broths, and sports drinks. Avoid high-fiber bread, such as whole grain, and stick to white bread.

Managing Chronic Diarrhea

For chronic diarrhea, the dietary recommendations depend on the underlying condition. In the case of celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is necessary. For irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the low FODMAP is best.

Generally speaking, avoid processed food and adopt a healthy lifestyle and diet. Consume fruits, vegetables, healthy oils, lean meats, fish, legumes, grains, and plenty of herbs and spices. A digestive tract specialist can help create a personalized diet based on your needs.