Your doctor will ask about your medical history, review the medications you take, conduct a physical exam and may order tests to determine what's causing your diarrhea. Possible tests include:
- Blood test. A complete blood count test, measurement of electrolytes and kidney function tests can help indicate the severity of your diarrhea.
- Stool test. Your doctor might recommend a stool test to see if a bacterium or parasite is causing your diarrhea.
- Hydrogen breath test. This type of test can help your doctor determine if you have a lactose intolerance. After you drink a liquid that contains high levels of lactose, your doctor measures the amount of hydrogen in your breath at regular intervals. Breathing out too much hydrogen indicates that you aren't fully digesting and absorbing lactose.
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. Using a thin, lighted tube that's inserted in your rectum, your doctor can see inside your colon. The device is also equipped with a tool that allows your doctor to take a small sample of tissue (biopsy) from your colon. Flexible sigmoidoscopy provides a view of the lower colon, while colonoscopy allows the doctor to see the entire colon.
- Upper endoscopy. Doctors use a long, thin tube with a camera on the end to examine your stomach and upper small intestine. They may remove a tissue sample (biopsy) for analysis in the laboratory.
Most cases of acute 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 or anti-parasitics
Antibiotics or anti-parasitic medications 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 with electrolytes, juice or broth. If drinking liquids upsets your stomach or causes vomiting, your doctor might recommend getting IV fluids.
Water is a good way to replace fluids, but it doesn't contain the salts and electrolytes — minerals such as sodium and potassium — that are essential for your body to function. You can help maintain your electrolyte levels by drinking fruit juices for potassium or eating soups for sodium. But 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, he or she 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.
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Lifestyle and home remedies
Diarrhea usually clears up quickly without treatment. To help you cope with your signs and symptoms until the diarrhea goes away, try to do the following:
- Drink plenty of 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 anti-diarrheal medications, such as loperamide and bismuth subsalicylate, 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. Some of these medications are not recommended for children. Check with your doctor before taking these medications or giving them to a child.
- Consider taking probiotics. These microorganisms may help restore a healthy balance to the intestinal tract by boosting the level of good bacteria, though it's not clear if they can help shorten a bout of diarrhea. Probiotics are available in capsule or liquid form and are also added to some foods, such as certain brands of yogurt. 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 taken 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.
Aug. 18, 2021