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Diarrhea: Causes and Treatment

Diarrhea. The condition that makes a common denominator of us all. Everyone, at some time in his or her life, has had a bout of the “runs”—hopefully in situations where a bathroom was nearby.

First Things First

If you have symptoms of lactose intolerance, which include bloating, gas, and heartburn, you don't have to forgo milk. Today, there are lactose-free milks you can buy right alongside the regular milk. They are clearly labeled “lactose free.” You can also try soy or rice milk, which is available in the dry goods section of your supermarket or health food store. Another choice is to add liquid lactase (or acidopholus bacteria) to your milk. This is the digestive enzyme that is needed for proper digestion. If you are lactose intolerant, you don't have enough lactase.


Before dispensing any anti-diarrheal medication, read the warning label. Make sure the user isn't allergic or taking any other medication that might cause complications.

Minor cases of the runs can be the result of:

  • Overeating
  • Nerves
  • Minor viral infections
  • Alcohol overindulgence
  • A side effect of medication
  • Eating food that's just begun to spoil
  • Lactose intolerance (which means your stomach's digestive acids lack the enzyme that will properly digest the sugar in milk, causing gas, heartburn, and diarrhea)
  • Taking too many antacids (which translates into too much magnesium and, ultimately, watery stools)

Unless the sufferer is lactose intolerant (in which case you should change to a lactose-free milk) or takes too many antacids (in which case he or she should cut down), there's little you need to do but let “nature take its course.” However, to ensure someone with diarrhea is as comfortable as possible and that there are no side effects, follow these steps:

  1. Stop all food until the bout of diarrhea is past. (One full day is recommended.) This gives an irritated digestive system a chance to calm down.
  2. Offer the person having the problem liquids instead of solids. The liquids help hydrate the body, replacing liquids lost during the bout of diarrhea. Stick with clear liquids, such as apple juice and 7-Up, and avoid acidic orange juice and caffeinated cola products. (These other liquids are also good: chicken and beef broth, gelatin dissolved in warm water, and herbal teas.)
  3. You can also give the sufferer an anti-diarrheal medication, such as Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate, or Immodium.
  4. If the bout of diarrhea stops during the first 24 hours, you can start giving the ill person solid foods. But go easy. The digestive tract is still sensitive! You might try hot cereal, toast, soft-boiled eggs, or chicken soup.
  5. There are times when it's wise to call a doctor, even if the problem is only mild diarrhea. If the diarrhea is accompanied by a high fever and severe cramps that don't subside, it could be a sign of something serious. Call your physician for guidance!

Minor diarrhea is easily cured and a call to the doctor or the emergency room is usually not necessary. But there are times when diarrhea can signal more serious illnesses—or lead to illness itself. These sections describe situations you should be mindful of, so you know when to seek expert care.

More on: First Aid

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to First Aid Basics © 1996 by Stephen J. Rosenberg, M.D. and Karla Dougherty. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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