Diarrhea: Causes and Self-Care Treatments

, Professor of Nonprescription Products and Devices, School of Pharmacy, Southwestern Oklahoma State University, Weatherford, OK

US Pharmacist. 2000;25(11) 

In This Article

Internet Precautions

A tour through Internet sites giving advice for diarrhea demonstrates the precautions patients should take in using this resource. Various web sites promote such therapies for diarrhea as relaxation (for a 4-month old infant) to counter emotional upsets a mother had while she was pregnant, grapefruit seed extract (touted as "a broad spectrum, antimicrobial, antiparasitic and natural antibiotic?, and homeopathic arsenic and podophyllum. None of these therapies have proven to be safe or effective for the self-treatment of diarrhea; therefore, they should not be a substitute for safe and effective interventions.


The bowel movements in diarrhea are not fully formed, but are partly composed of liquid. Thus, with every loose bowel movement, the patient is losing body water. If the water loss continues for too long, the patient becomes dehydrated. With the loss of water, the patient is also losing electrolytes--vital elements such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. If the body loses excessive amounts of these, its function can be endangered. For instance, low potassium can produce heart problems. For these reasons, there is a 48-hour time limit on how long diarrhea can last before you must see a physician. Although nonprescription products provide this information, some patients interpret labels to mean that they have 48 hours after purchase of the product before they should see a physician. This is incorrect and dangerous. Rather, you only have 48 hours after the first bowel movement to self-treat. If the diarrhea is still present after 48 hours (following the first bowel movement), you should call a physician.


Adults usually can withstand diarrhea, as long as it does not persist too long. However, children are more prone to fluid and electrolyte upsets. For this reason, diarrhea should not be self-treated if the patient is under the age of 3. Do not purchase a nonprescription product and simply cut the dose for a child younger than 3 years old. The products are not known to be safe for self-treatment at those ages. You should call a pediatrician instead.

Other Situations

If you have fever, infection may be present, and diarrhea should not be self-treated regardless of how long it has lasted or the age of the patient. Some products warn against self-treatment if there is blood or mucus in the stool. See a physician in either of these cases.


Most pharmacies stock electrolyte products that can help prevent deficiencies when patients have diarrhea (Infalyte, Pedialyte, KaoLectrolyte, RevitalIce). Some are ready to drink, some are frozen before use, and others must be mixed with water before use. Electrolyte products do not treat diarrhea. They do not allow anyone to ignore the 3-year age cut-off or the 48-hour time limit on self-therapy. If the patient is over the age of three years, the diarrhea has not lasted more than 48 hours, and fever is not present, diarrhea maybe self-treatable. Several safe and effective nonprescription antidiarrheal agents are available (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate, Imodium A-D, Mitrolan, Equalactin). For help in choosing a product that is appropriate for you, Consult Your Pharmacist.


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