Besides conducting a physical exam and reviewing your medications, your doctor might order tests to determine what's causing your diarrhea. They include:
- Blood test. A complete blood count test can help determine what's causing your diarrhea.
- Stool test. Your doctor might recommend a stool test to determine whether a bacterium or parasite is causing your diarrhea.
Flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. Your doctor might recommend one of these procedures to look at the lining of your colon and provide biopsies if no cause is evident for persistent diarrhea.
Both procedures involve using a thin, lighted tube with a lens on the end to look inside your colon.
Most cases of diarrhea clear on their own within a couple of days without treatment. If you've tried lifestyle changes and home remedies for diarrhea without success, your doctor might recommend medications or other treatments.
Antibiotics might help treat diarrhea caused by bacteria or parasites. If a virus is causing your diarrhea, antibiotics won't help.
Treatment to replace fluids
Your doctor likely will advise you to replace the fluids and salts. For most adults, that means drinking water, juice or broth. If drinking liquids upsets your stomach or causes diarrhea, your doctor might recommend getting fluids through a vein in your arm (intravenously).
Water is a good way to replace fluids, but it doesn't contain the salts and electrolytes — minerals such as sodium and potassium — you need to maintain the electric currents that keep your heart beating. You can help maintain your electrolyte levels by drinking fruit juices for potassium or eating soups for sodium. Certain fruit juices, such as apple juice, might make diarrhea worse.
For children, ask your doctor about using an oral rehydration solution, such as Pedialyte, to prevent dehydration or replace lost fluids.
Adjusting medications you're taking
If your doctor determines that an antibiotic caused your diarrhea, your doctor might lower your dose or switch to another medication.
Treating underlying conditions
If your diarrhea is caused by a more serious condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease, your doctor will work to control that condition. You might be referred to a specialist, such as a gastroenterologist, who can help devise a treatment plan for you.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Most diarrhea cases clear up on their own within a few days. To help you cope with your signs and symptoms until the diarrhea goes away, try to:
- Drink plenty of clear liquids, including water, broths and juices. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
- Add semisolid and low-fiber foods gradually as your bowel movements return to normal. Try soda crackers, toast, eggs, rice or chicken.
- Avoid certain foods such as dairy products, fatty foods, high-fiber foods or highly seasoned foods for a few days.
Ask about anti-diarrheal medications. Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-diarrheal medications, such as loperamide (Imodium A-D) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol), might help reduce the number of watery bowel movements and control severe symptoms.
Certain medical conditions and infections — bacterial and parasitic — can be worsened by these medications because they prevent your body from getting rid of what's causing the diarrhea. Also, these drugs aren't always safe for children. Check with your doctor before taking these medications or giving them to a child.
Consider taking probiotics. These microorganisms help restore a healthy balance to the intestinal tract by boosting the level of good bacteria. Probiotics are available in capsule or liquid form and are also added to some foods, such as certain brands of yogurt.
Studies confirm that some probiotics might be helpful in treating antibiotic-associated diarrhea and infectious diarrhea. However, further research is needed to better understand which strains of bacteria are most helpful or what doses are needed.
Preparing for your appointment
You might start by seeing your primary care practitioner. If you have persistent diarrhea, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in the digestive system (gastroenterologist).
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
What you can do
When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as fast before certain tests. Make a list of:
- Your symptoms, including when they began and any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Key personal information, including any major stresses, recent life changes or travel.
- Medications, vitamins or supplements you take, including doses. If you've recently taken an antibiotic, note what kind, for how long and when you stopped.
- Questions to ask your doctor.
For diarrhea, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What is likely causing my diarrhea?
- Could my diarrhea be caused by a medication I'm taking?
- What tests do I need?
- Is my diarrhea likely temporary or chronic?
- What is the best course of action?
- What are the alternatives to the primary approach that you're suggesting?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them with the diarrhea?
- Are there restrictions I should follow?
- May I take medication such as loperamide to slow the diarrhea down?
- Should I see a specialist?
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, including:
- When did your symptoms begin?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
- Does your diarrhea awaken you at night?
- Do you see blood, or are your bowel movements black in color?
- Have you recently been around anyone who has diarrhea?
- Have you recently stayed in a hospital or nursing home?
- Have you take antibiotics recently?
What you can do in the meantime
While you wait for your appointment, you may ease your symptoms if you:
- Drink more fluids. To help avoid dehydration, drink water, juice and broth.
- Avoid foods that can aggravate diarrhea. Avoid fatty, high-fiber or highly seasoned foods.