When Should a Doctor Be Consulted?
Although usually not harmful, diarrhea can become dangerous or signal a more serious problem. You should see the doctor if
If your child has diarrhea, do not hesitate to call the doctor for advice. Diarrhea can be dangerous in children if too much fluid is lost and not replaced quickly.
What Tests Might the
Diagnostic tests to find the cause of diarrhea include the following:
- You have diarrhea for more than 3 days.
- You have severe pain in the abdomen or rectum.
- You have a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
- You see blood in your stool or have black, tarry stools.
- You have signs of dehydration.
What Is the Treatment?
In most cases, replacing lost fluid to prevent dehydration is the only treatment necessary. (See "Preventing Dehydration"
below.) Medicines that stop diarrhea may be helpful in some cases, but they are not recommended for people whose diarrhea is from a bacterial infection or parasite--stopping the diarrhea traps the organism in the intestines,
prolonging the problem. Instead, doctors usually prescribe antibiotics. Viral causes are either treated with medication or left to run their course, depending on the severity and type of the virus.
Dehydration occurs when the body has lost too much fluid and electrolytes (the salts potassium and sodium). The fluid and electrolytes lost during diarrhea need to be replaced promptly--the body cannot function properly without them. Dehydration is particularly dangerous for children, who can die from it within a matter of days. Although water is extremely important in preventing dehydration, it does not contain electrolytes. To maintain electrolyte levels, you could have broth or soups, which contain sodium, and fruit juices, soft fruits, or vegetables, which contain potassium.
For children, doctors often recommend a special rehydration solution that contains the nutrients they need. You can buy this solution in the grocery store without a prescription. Examples include Pedialyte, Ceralyte, and Infalyte.
Tips About Food
Until diarrhea subsides, try to avoid milk products and foods that are greasy, high-fiber, or very sweet. These foods tend to aggravate diarrhea.
As you improve, you can add soft, bland foods to your diet, including bananas, plain rice, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers, cooked carrots, and baked chicken without the skin or fat. For children, the pediatrician may recommend what is called the BRAT diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast.
Preventing Traveler's Diarrhea
Traveler's diarrhea happens when you consume food or water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites. You can take the following precautions to prevent traveler's diarrhea when you go abroad:
- Medical history and physical examination. The doctor will need to know about your eating habits and medication use and will examine you for signs of illness.
- Stool culture. Lab technicians analyze a sample of stool to check for bacteria, parasites, or other signs of disease or infection.
- Blood tests. Blood tests can be helpful in ruling out certain diseases.
- Fasting tests. To find out if a food intolerance or allergy is causing the diarrhea, the doctor may ask you to avoid lactose (found in milk products), carbohydrates, wheat, or other foods to see whether the diarrhea responds to a change in diet.
- Sigmoidoscopy. For this test, the doctor uses a special instrument to look at the inside of the rectum and lower part of the colon.
- Colonoscopy. This test is similar to sigmoidoscopy, but the doctor looks at the entire colon.
You can safely drink bottled water (if you are the one to break the seal), carbonated soft drinks, and hot drinks like coffee or tea.
Depending on where you are going and how long you are staying, your doctor may recommend that you take antibiotics before leaving to protect you from possible infection.
Points To Remember
- Do not drink any tap water, not even when brushing your teeth.
- Do not drink unpasteurized milk or dairy products.
- Do not use ice made from tap water.
- Avoid all raw fruits and vegetables (including lettuce and fruit salad) unless they can be peeled and you peel them yourself.
- Do not eat raw or rare meat and fish.
- Do not eat meat or shellfish that is not hot when served to you.
- Do not eat food from street vendors.
- Diarrhea is a common problem that usually resolves on its own.
- Diarrhea is dangerous if a person becomes dehydrated.
- Causes include viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections; food intolerance;
reactions to medicine; intestinal diseases; and functional bowel disorders.
- Treatment involves replacing lost fluids and electrolytes. Depending
on the cause of the problem, a person might also need medication to
stop the diarrhea or treat an infection. Children may need an oral rehydration
solution to replace lost fluids and electrolytes.
- Call the doctor if a person with diarrhea has severe pain in the
abdomen or rectum, a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, blood
in the stool, signs of dehydration, or diarrhea for more than 3 days.
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