Diarrhea — often described as loose or watery and frequent stools — is typically related to an infection, medication side effect, food intolerance, foodborne illness or associated with a medical condition. Although certain foods may aggravate diarrhea, fluids and other foods can help support recovery. If your symptoms persist more than a few days, or if you are dehydrated or not able to drink enough fluids, see your doctor.
When you have diarrhea, fluid replacement is a priority. For diarrhea that is mild and short-lived, a variety of fluids will work, including broth, water and diluted fruit juices. If diarrhea lasts more than 1 to 2 days, an oral rehydration solution (ORS) should be added to prevent or treat dehydration and related complications, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AFP).
ORS products usually contain glucose, sodium, potassium and other electrolytes, and are available over-the-counter in powders for mixing with water, commercial beverages such as Pedialyte or Ceralyte, or can be prepared at home according to standard recipes. If you are dehydrated or have diarrhea that lasts more than 1 to 2 days, seek your doctor's advice on the use of ORS.
After a bout of diarrhea, its important for gut health and recovery to resume solid foods as soon as possible. Historically, health professionals have recommended the BRAT diet — bananas, rice, applesauce and toast — in diarrhea management. However, this diet does not have research data to support it's effectiveness or necessity, and is considered too restrictive to support adequate nutrition.
BRAT diet foods do have some benefits, though. They are soft, easy to tolerate and are not known to worsen diarrhea — and can be a starting point in your transition back to a normal diet. So in addition to BRAT diet foods, try incorporating other easy-to-tolerate foods, such as soups, plain pasta, potatoes, crackers, cooked cereal, soft fresh or canned fruits, soft cooked vegetables and tender, cooked meats or poultry.
Resuming Usual Diet
A nutritious diet is important during and after diarrhea. Continue to drink plenty of fluids, and transition your diet back a normal, healthful diet as soon as possible. Choose a diet that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, and a plan that includes whole grains, beans, calcium-rich foods such as yogurt or milk, and lean sources of protein such as fish or chicken — or plant protein, such as soy, nuts and seeds. After the diarrhea resolves, most people will be able to resume their normal diet.
However, according to a research review, at least 10 percent of people who have infectious enteritis — an infection of the intestines that is usually accompanied by diarrhea — develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) afterwards. IBS is characterized by abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation, and foods that contain lactose, gluten, sugar alcohols and other substances may worsen symptoms. If you have new gastrointestinal symptoms after an episode of diarrhea, see your doctor.
Diarrhea can lead to severe, life-threatening dehydration, so contact your doctor right way if your diarrhea is severe or if it lasts more than a few days. Also see your doctor if you are dehydrated and not able to drink enough liquids. Infants and young children are at high risk of complications from diarrhea, so contact a pediatrician if this symptom doesn't resolve within 1 day, or sooner if fluid intake is poor or urination is decreased, or if you need guidance on managing this symptom in your child.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
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- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Diarrhea
- Gastroenterology: Prevalence, Risk Factors, and Outcomes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome After Infectious Enteritis: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis
- Merck Manual: Oral Rehydration
- Nutrition Issues in Gastroenterology: The BRAT Diet for Acute Diarrhea in Children: Should It Be Used?
- American Family Physician: Acute Diarrhea in Adults