Diarrhea can be uncomfortable and unpleasant and can severely disrupt a person’s day. However, most diarrhea episodes are short-term or “acute,” though some may persist for days or even weeks.
This article outlines the typical duration of diarrhea, provides tips on how to get fast relief, and offers advice on when to see a doctor.
Below are several methods that adults can use to alleviate diarrhea quickly.
The most common and convenient solution for alleviating acute diarrhea is over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as:
- Loperamide (Imodium): This medication slows down digestion so that the body can draw more water from the intestines. This helps to firm up stools and reduce the frequency of bowel movements.
- Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol): This medication helps to coat and kill some of the diarrhea-causing bacteria that a person may have in their gut.
The above medications are not suitable for people whose diarrhea is accompanied by the following symptoms:
A doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help eliminate a bacterial infection of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
People may contract harmful bacteria as a result of eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. Bacteria that commonly cause diarrhea include:
Certain dietary adjustments may help alleviate an acute episode of diarrhea and reduce the risk of further complications. Examples include:
- Eating bland foods: Bland, easy-to-digest foods reduce the risk of further GI upset and diarrhea. A popular dietary option for an upset stomach is the BRAT diet, which is an acronym of the following bland foods:
- Increasing intake of soluble fiber: Soluble fiber is a type of fiber that absorbs fluid in the intestines. As such, it helps to firm up stools and alleviate diarrhea. Foods that are high in soluble fiber include:
- fruits and vegetables
- bread and pasta
- Eating smaller meals: People should aim to eat smaller and more frequent meals throughout the day instead of eating two or three large meals.
- Resting after meals: Relaxing after a meal helps to slow the movement of food through the gut. This helps to reduce the frequency of bowel movements.
Loose, watery stools cause a person to lose fluids and electrolytes. This can quickly lead to dehydration and associated complications.
Signs of dehydration include:
- low urine output
- increased thirst
To prevent dehydration, a person should drink at least one cup of fluids after each bout of diarrhea. Fruit juices and sports drinks are good options as they are high in potassium and other important electrolytes.
According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, the following supplements may help to alleviate diarrhea:
Psyllium, pectin, and blackberry root bark may help slow down the digestive system, reducing the frequency and urgency of bowel movements.
Probiotics may help reduce the duration of diarrhea in children. However, people who are taking antibiotics should finish the course before taking probiotics.
Find out more ways to treat diarrhea at home here.
The treatment for acute diarrhea in infants differs from that for adults. For example, OTC anti-diarrheal medications are not suitable for children unless a doctor has prescribed them.
Below are some methods for treating diarrhea in infants.
An infant with diarrhea must continue to feed and drink as normal. People who are breastfeeding should continue to do so if the infant is still willing to drink fluids.
Oral rehydration solutions can help replace the fluids and electrolytes lost during episodes of diarrhea. Examples of such solutions include:
A 2014 review article notes that daily zinc supplements may help to treat and prevent episodes of acute diarrhea in infants. They suggest that children older than two months may benefit from 20 milligrams of zinc per day over 10 days.
Additional research is necessary to determine whether this type of treatment has applications for adults.
People who are experiencing diarrhea should avoid foods and ingredients that could make their diarrhea worse. This includes the following:
- foods high in fructose
- prune juice and dried fruits
- sugar replacements or substitutes
- fatty foods
- fried foods
- spicy foods
Persistent or recurrent episodes of diarrhea may indicate an underlying food sensitivity or intolerance. Anyone who has a suspected food sensitivity or intolerance should avoid foods that trigger bouts of diarrhea.
Some common triggers of food sensitivities and intolerances include:
- Lactose: A natural sugar found in milk and dairy products.
- Fructose: A natural sugar found in fruits.
- Gluten: Proteins that exist in grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) defines “diarrhea” as passing three or more loose, watery stools per day.
The NIDDK categorize diarrhea into the following three types, based on its duration:
- Acute: Diarrhea that typically lasts 1–2 days and goes away on its own. This type is the most common.
- Persistent: Diarrhea that lasts between 2–4 weeks.
- Chronic: Diarrhea that lasts at least 4 weeks. The symptoms may be persistent, or they may come and go.
The NIDDK recommend that adults see a doctor if their diarrhea lasts more than 2 days. They add that children should see a doctor if their diarrhea lasts 24 hours or more.
Acute diarrhea can take a day or two to subside. In the meantime, people can follow the tips below to help alleviate their symptoms:
- drinking plenty of water, juices, and broths to help avoid dehydration
- taking OTC anti-diarrheal medications to help relieve pain from gas and bloating
- getting plenty of rest to help slow the digestive process
Adults should see a doctor if they have diarrhea that lasts longer than 2 days or experience six or more diarrhea episodes within 24 hours. They should also see a doctor if their diarrhea is accompanied by any of the following:
- signs of dehydration
- frequent vomiting
- severe pain in the stomach, abdomen, or rectum
- bloody or tarry stools
Infants should see a doctor if they have diarrhea that lasts 24 hours or more, or if any of the following symptoms accompany their diarrhea:
- signs of dehydration
- bloody, pus-filled stools
- dark, tarry stools
Adults and children with a weakened immune system or other underlying medical conditions should see a doctor immediately if they experience diarrhea.
Diarrhea can come on suddenly and resolve on its own just as quickly. Most cases are acute, lasting up to 2 days. However, people may also experience persistent or chronic diarrhea that comes and goes over several weeks.
Thankfully, there are methods for quickly and effectively alleviating diarrhea symptoms. These methods differ somewhat for children and adults.
People should see a doctor if their diarrhea persists, or they experience other worrying symptoms. A doctor will work to diagnose the cause of the diarrhea and provide appropriate treatments.