Diarrhea Treatment

How is diarrhea treated?
In most cases of diarrhea, the only treatment necessary is replacing lost fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration.

Over-the-counter medicines such as loperamide (Imodium) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate) may help stop diarrhea in adults. However, people with bloody diarrhea—a sign of bacterial or parasitic infection—should not use these medicines. If diarrhea is caused by bacteria or parasites, over-the-counter medicines may prolong the problem, so doctors usually prescribe antibiotics instead.

Medications to treat diarrhea in adults can be dangerous for infants and children and should only be given with a doctor’s guidance.

Eating, Diet, and Nutrition
Until diarrhea subsides, avoiding caffeine and foods that are greasy, high in fiber, or sweet may lessen symptoms. These foods can aggravate diarrhea. Some people also have problems digesting lactose during or after a bout of diarrhea. Yogurt, which has less lactose than milk, is often better tolerated. Yogurt with active, live bacterial cultures may even help people recover from diarrhea more quickly.

As symptoms improve, soft, bland foods, including bananas, plain rice, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers, cooked carrots, and baked chicken without the skin or fat, can be added to the diet. Infants with diarrhea should be given breast milk or full-strength formula as usual, along with oral rehydration solutions. Some children recovering from viral diarrheas have problems digesting lactose for up to a month or more.

Can diarrhea be prevented?
Two types of diarrhea can be prevented—rotavirus diarrhea and traveler’s diarrhea.

Rotavirus Diarrhea
Two oral vaccines have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to protect children from rotavirus infections: rotavirus vaccine, live, oral, pentavalent (RotaTeq); and rotavirus vaccine, live, oral (Rotarix). RotaTeq is given to infants in three doses at 2, 4, and 6 months of age. Rotarix is given in two doses. The first dose is given when infants are 6 weeks old, and the second is given at least 4 weeks later but before infants are 24 weeks old.

Parents of infants should discuss rotavirus vaccination with a health care provider.

Traveler’s Diarrhea
To prevent traveler’s diarrhea, people traveling from the United States to developing countries should avoid

  • Drinking tap water, using tap water to brush their teeth, or using ice made from tap water
  • Drinking unpasteurized milk or milk products
  • Eating raw fruits and vegetables, including lettuce and fruit salads, unless they peel the fruits or vegetables themselves
  • Eating raw or rare meat and fish
  • Eating meat or shellfish that is not hot when served
  • Eating food from street vendors

Travelers can drink bottled water, soft drinks, and hot drinks such as coffee or tea.

People concerned about traveler’s diarrhea should talk with a health care provider before traveling. The health care provider may recommend that travelers bring medicine with them in case they develop diarrhea during their trip. Health care providers may advise some people—especially people with weakened immune systems—to take antibiotics before and during a trip to help prevent traveler’s diarrhea. Early treatment with antibiotics can shorten a bout of traveler’s diarrhea.