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Section I–Common Health Problems - Diarrhea

HealthyLife® Students' Self-Care Guide

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 Section I–Common Health Problems

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“My first night
in the dorm, I was nervous with an upset stomach. The fact that I had to
use a community bathroom made it even more uncomfortable.”

S., Rutgers University

Diarrhea is passing body waste from the
bowel more often and in a more liquid state than usual.

Signs & Symptoms

Watery, loose stools

Frequent bowel movements

Cramping or pain in the abdomen


“Stomach flu,” which is a viral infection
of the intestines
Spoiled food, contaminated water, or 
infections from bacteria or parasites that affect the digestive tract.
One example is traveler’s diarrhea.
Overuse of alcohol or laxatives
A side effect of some medicines, such as
some antibiotics
Lactose intolerance or a food allergy
Menstrual cramps
Stress or a panic attack

Diarrhea is also a symptom of health conditions, such as irritable bowel
syndrome (“spastic colon”).  It results in irregular bowel habits and
abdominal pain that are not due to any other bowel disease.


Wash your hands after going to the
toilet and before preparing food. Use disposable paper towels to dry
your hands.

When traveling, find out if it is
advisable to drink bottled water, boiled water, and to avoid using ice
cubes. You may need to remove the peels from fruits and vegetables
before eating.


Self-care treats most bouts of diarrhea. If
the diarrhea is caused by a medical condition, treating it will help
alleviate the diarrhea.

Questions to Ask

With diarrhea, do you have these
signs of dehydration

  • Sunken and dry or tearless eyes

  • Dry mouth, tongue, and lips

  • No urine or a low amount of urine that
    is dark yellow

  • Lightheadedness, especially when
    getting up quickly

  • Dry skin that doesn’t spring back
    after being pinched

  • Dizziness, confusion, weakness

  • Increase in breathing and heart rate

  • Severe thirst (sometimes)

Is there blood in the diarrhea or is its color
tarlike or maroon?


Do you have the following signs and
symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome?

  • Gas, bloating, cramps, or pain in the

  • Changes in bowel habits:

    • Constipation, diarrhea, or both

    • Crampy urge, but inability to move
      your bowels

    •  Mucus in your stool

With diarrhea, do you have abdominal or rectal


Do you have any of these problems with

  • Temperature of 101 degrees Fahrenheit
    or higher

  • The diarrhea has lasted 48 hours or

  • You have a chronic illness and have
    diarrhea more than 8 times a day.

  • You are taking medicines (regular
    medicines that the body may not be absorbing due to the diarrhea,
    and/or prescribed or over-the-counter ones that might be contributing
    to the diarrhea).



If vomiting is also present, treat for
vomiting first. (See “Vomiting & Nausea”)

Follow your normal diet if there are no
signs of dehydration.

Avoid having high “simple” sugar drinks,
like apple juice, grape juice, gelatin, regular colas, and other soft
drinks. These can pull water into the gut and make the diarrhea persist.

If there are signs of dehydration, stop
solid foods. Have around 2 cups of clear fluids per hour (if vomiting
isn’t present). Fluids of choice are:

  • Sport drinks, such as Gatorade

  • Kool- Aid. This usually has less sugar
    than soda pop.

Don’t drink clear liquids exclusively
for more than 24 hours.

Start eating normal meals within 12

Good food choices are:

  • Starchy foods, such as rice, potatoes,
    cereals (not sweetened ones), crackers, and toast

  • Vegetables, such as cooked carrots,
    and non milk-based soups with noodles, rice, and/or vegetables

  • Lean (not fatty) meats

  • Yogurt, especially with live active
    cultures of lactobacillus acidophilus

Use over-the-counter lactobacillus
acidophilus capsules or tablets. These help restore normal bacteria to
the bowel.

Avoid fatty and fried foods.

The B.R.A.T. diet: Just having bananas,
rice, applesauce, and dry toast is no longer the diet if choice for
diarrhea. These foods are still okay to eat, though.

Exercise moderately until the diarrhea
is gone.

Try an over-the-counter antidiarrheal
medicine, such as Imodium A-D, but wait at least 12 hours before you
take this to let the diarrhea “run its course” to get rid of what caused

For Lactose Intolerance:

Avoid foods that are not easy for you to
digest. Some people with lactose intolerance can tolerate dairy products
in small portions.

Try foods that have had lactose reduced
by bacterial cultures. Examples are buttermilk, yogurt, and sweet
acidophilus milk. Take over-the-counter lactobacillus acidophilus

Take over-the-counter drops or pills
that have the enzyme lactase when you have dairy foods.

If the above measures don’t help, avoid
products with milk, milk solids, and whey. Products marked “parve” are
milk free.

6th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine
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December 08, 2005