Diarrhea is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection of the small intestine. It can also be caused by certain medications (such as antibiotics, blood pressure drugs, and magnesium-containing antacids), certain medical conditions, and food poisoning.


Source: Adapted from Looking After Your Body: An Owner’s Guide to Successful Aging, Reader’s Digest; Family

What is diarrhea?

Passing abnormally liquid and frequent feces.

Who is at risk for diarrhea?

Diarrhea is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection of the small intestine. It can also be caused by certain medications (such as antibiotics, blood pressure drugs, and magnesium-containing antacids), certain medical conditions, and food poisoning. Intolerance to wheat, lactose (the sugar found in milk), or fructose (the sugar in fruits) is another cause. Diarrhea may also accompany inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome.

Treatment for diarrhea

Diarrhea usually lasts a day or two and ends on its own with home treatment. See your doctor if you have a fever of 102°F or higher, if you have bloody or unusually dark stools, or if your diarrhea lasts for more than four days. Also call your doctor if you feel light-headed, weak, or listless, have pain in your stomach or rectum, or have symptoms of dehydration (strong thirst, dry mouth, dry skin, infrequent urination).

Because the causes of diarrhea are so wide-ranging, your doctor will ask you a variety of questions, including what you’ve been eating and drinking, whether you’ve been outside Canada recently, and what medications you take regularly. She may advise you to avoid certain foods for a week or to follow a bland diet to see if the problem clears up. If you’ve had diarrhea for more than three weeks and the common causes have been ruled out, your doctor may want to examine a stool sample under the microscope to check for parasites.

The most important step you can take while you have diarrhea is to replace the fluids you’re losing. Drink plenty of water, apple juice, cola drinks, electrolyte replacement drinks such as Gatorade, or chicken or beef broth. Stay away from milk, acidic fruit juices, and foods you suspect you can’t digest properly. As your diarrhea eases, add bulk to loose stools by following the BRATT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, tea, and toast.

Medications for diarrhea

Prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs that stop diarrhea sometimes help, but they’re not recommended for diarrhea caused by bacteria or parasites. Why? Because the drugs that stop diarrhea also prevent the intestines from expelling the organisms causing it, prolonging the problem. Antibiotics may help in these cases. Diarrhea caused by a virus is often allowed to run its course. Or you may wish to try one of these popular OTC antidiarrheal drugs.

  • ‘ Loperamide (Imodium) slows the movement of stools through the intestines.
  • ‘ Attapulgite (Kaopectate) absorbs diarrhea-causing irritants from the digestive tract.
  • ‘ Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) works by coating your intestine to protect it from irritants and reducing the fluid buildup that can contribute to a bout of diarrhea.

Alternative therapies for diarrhea

Astringent teas such as those made from agrimony, raspberry leaf, and blackberry leaf may reduce intestinal inflammation. And taking 5,000 mcg of folic acid three times daily for several days can cut bouts of infectious diarrhea nearly in half. Psyllium seed, available in most health-food stores, provides soluble fibre that adds bulk to stools.

Prevention of diarrhea

Rinse your produce. Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating them to remove bacteria.

Cook it well. Rare meat can cause food poisoning. Always use a meat thermometer to make sure it’s safe.

Use kitchen caution. Always keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Throw out eggs that are cracked, as well as cans that are swollen or dented at the rim or seam. Defrost foods in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Make sure that raw meat juices don’t come into contact with other foods in your refrigerator or on the cutting board.

Test the water. If you have chronic diarrhea, have your tap water tested for bacteria or install a purification filter.

Say ‘yes’ to yogurt. Yogurt that contains live cultures helps restore beneficial bacteria to the intestines, keeping ‘bad’ bacteria from thriving.

Look to lactase. If you are lactose intolerant, head off potential digestive problems, including diarrhea, by taking lactase (Lactaid) before eating foods that contain dairy products.

Consider acidophilus. If you’re taking antibiotics for a bacterial infection, consider taking acidophilus supplements to restore to your digestive tract the beneficial bacteria that antibiotics kill.

Hygiene helps. Always wash your hands before preparing foods or eating, after using the toilet, and in between handling cooked and raw foods, especially meats.

Travel smart. When visiting other countries, take care to prevent traveler’s diarrhea. Don’t drink the tap water or even brush your teeth with it, and avoid ice made from it. Pass up raw fruits and vegetables (including lettuce), unless they can be peeled and you peel them yourself. Avoid unpasteurized milk or dairy products, and don’t eat raw or rare meat or fish.

Keep stress under control. Intense stress can disrupt the digestive system and cause diarrhea.