When you’re struggling with diarrhea, you just want it to stop. Bouts of the loose, watery stool are often unpredictable and can be accompanied by cramps, pain, burning, fever and even blood. “When one considers the inconvenience of diarrheal episodes as it relates to work, travel or athletics, there can be a major interruption in a person’s lifestyle freedoms, revenue and happiness,” says Dr. Bridget Seymour, a gastroenterologist at the Holy Family Hospital campus in Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Types and Causes of Diarrhea
Before you try to stop diarrhea, aim to figure out which type you’re experiencing.
— Acute diarrhea lasts anywhere from a few hours to four weeks. It’s sudden and often catches you off guard. “It’s usually caused by infection from bacteria or viruses — things like food poisoning, norovirus or rotavirus,” explains Dr. Daniel Bushyhead, a gastroenterologist with Houston Methodist Hospital.
— Chronic diarrhea lasts four weeks or more. While it can also come on suddenly, you know the symptom well and you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to resolve it. “There are dozens of causes of chronic diarrhea. Some may be as simple as irritable bowel syndrome, food intolerances, infection, medication side effects or prior gallbladder removal,” Seymour says. “Other conditions are far more complicated and require more extensive testing and treatment, such as Crohn’s disease, microscopic colitis, malabsorption due to small bowel damage, some cancers and thyroid dysfunction.”
[READ: Remedies for a Stomach Ache.]
How to Stop Acute Diarrhea
In a word, don’t. While you want fast relief of acute diarrhea, reaching for over-the-counter medications such as loperamide (Diamode, Imodium A-D) or bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol) to slow gut activity could have unintended consequences that make infection worse. “In most cases, the gut is trying to expel a pathogen. Taking medication can interfere with that and should be used cautiously, particularly if you also have a fever or blood in the stool,” Bushyhead says.
If sudden diarrhea is accompanied by blood in your stool, fever or severe pain, seek medical attention quickly. “Go to an ER. Or if you’re well enough to wait, see your doctor the next day,” Bushyhead suggests.
Often, the best way to get over acute diarrhea is simply waiting until it’s over. During that time, you should:
— Stay hydrated. Diarrhea causes you to lose fluids and electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium). “Avoid sports drinks; they have too much sugar and are not as well balanced as other oral rehydration solutions that reconstitute the electrolytes and fluid you lose when you have diarrhea,” Bushyhead says.
— Eat a bland diet and drink clear liquids. “If you’re hungry, slowly reintroduce simple foods that are easy to digest — not a big bacon cheeseburger or something rich or fatty,” Bushyhead recommends. “Try toast, rice or pasta. Experiment with things that won’t irritate your gut.”
— Isolate from others. This is important if you think you have an infection such as norovirus, which is highly contagious. A special note: Diarrhea can be a symptom of COVID-19. If you’re concerned you have COVID-19, call your doctor immediately.
How to Stop Chronic Diarrhea
Stopping chronic diarrhea focuses on treating an underlying condition. This requires a bit of investigation by a primary care physician or gastroenterologist.
At an appointment, you can expect the physician to:
— Consider your medical history.
— Ask about your symptoms and diarrhea triggers.
— Perform a physical exam.
— Order bloodwork.
— Possibly order a procedure such as a colonoscopy to look into your colon for potential problems.
Once a cause is determined, treatment will be based on your condition. For example:
— If you have celiac disease, you’ll have to go on a strict gluten-free diet. (Gluten is a protein found in whole grains such as wheat, barley or rye.)
— If you have inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, you’ll need medications that suppress the immune system.
— If you have irritable bowel syndrome, you may need medications that slow the GI tract or help with pain.
But remember that these are chronic conditions that will require permanent management — and that may include a constant battle to control the symptom of diarrhea.
Straightforward Ways to Stop Diarrhea
Sometimes the cause of chronic diarrhea has a simple fix. That may happen when the trigger is:
— Natural sugars. Lots of people have a hard time digesting natural sugars in common foods such as onions, beans, dairy foods, and apples. “I saw a woman who had chronic diarrhea, and she wondered if she had a dietary trigger. She eliminated dairy products, and her diarrhea resolved,” Bushyhead says. “She had lactose intolerance. If you don’t have the ability to break down lactose, the sugar in milk, the unabsorbed sugar and its fermented byproducts will stay in the gut and draw water into it and produce diarrhea.”
— Artificial sweeteners. Sugar-free gum and candies, drinks and sugar substitutes can cause chronic diarrhea. “Non-absorbable ‘sugar-free’ sugars do not get broken down and absorbed by our digestive enzymes and instead get digested by gut bacteria. The presence of these breakdown products in the colon causes an influx of water, contributing to loose, watery stool, bloat and gas,” Seymour explains. She recalls one patient who decided to see a gastroenterologist about his chronic lifelong diarrhea. “A closer examination of his diet and lifestyle revealed that for most of his adult life, he had been using sugar-free cough drops for a chronic tickle in his throat. Once he agreed to discontinue them,” Seymour says, “the diarrhea completely resolved and his quality of life drastically improved. He was literally a new person.”
— Prescription medication. Some medications can cause diarrhea. Common offenders include antibiotics and the diabetes medication metformin (Glucophage, Riomet). If you suspect your medications are the problem, ask your doctor if there’s another drug that won’t have that side effect.
What if Diarrhea Persists?
“The majority of people with chronic diarrhea end up getting a diagnosis and appropriate treatment and have some degree of control over their symptoms,” Bushyhead says.
But if you don’t find relief, contact your doctor.
“Certainly any features that could indicate a more complicated cause should prompt follow-up with a doctor immediately, such as routine nighttime diarrheal episodes, red or black stools, weight loss, abdominal pain, fevers, flushing, night sweats or rashes,” Seymour says. “Diarrhea can be an extremely debilitating complaint. Always check in with a health care professional if interventions don’t resolve symptoms.”
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