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Salt or Sugar Water for Diarrhea?

author image Adam Cloe Ph.D./M.D.
Adam Cloe has been published in various scientific journals, including the "Journal of Biochemistry." He is currently a pathology resident at the University of Chicago. Cloe holds a Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry from Boston University, a M.D. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in pathology from the University of Chicago.
Salt or Sugar Water for Diarrhea?
Man with a stomach ache in the bathroom. Photo Credit: texelart/iStock/Getty Images

Diarrhea is defined as loose or watery stools that occur more than three times per day. The main risk from diarrhea is the loss of fluids and electrolytes. This can be treated using rehydration solutions, which contain water, minerals and frequently contain some sugar. While premixed formulas often contain some sugar, making your own sugar water or saltwater can make diarrhea worse.

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A significant risk of diarrhea is dehydration from fluid loss. Although thirst is a sign of dehydration, thirst usually occurs only when the body already is becoming dehydrated. Other signs of dehydration include a dry or sticky mouth, eyes that seem to sink into the head, lethargy, little or no urine output, and dry, cool skin, notes. If the dehydration is severe, blood pressure will drop, resulting in dizziness or fainting, particularly if you stand suddenly.


Fluid loss due to severe diarrhea should not be treated with pure water. Although drinking water will replace the lost fluids, the body will lose important minerals, known as electrolytes, that water will not replenish, states. Electrolytes are substances that have an electrical charge when dissolved in water and are critical for the body's function. Diarrhea can deplete the body of sodium and potassium, two electrolytes that are critical for the function of all cells, particularly muscle and nerve cells.

Oral Rehydration

In many cases the only treatment for severe diarrhea is oral rehydration. Commercially available solutions are available, either premixed or in powder form, a 2004 article in "Emergency Medicine" explains. Each liter of these solutions usually contains 3.5 g of sodium chloride, 2.5 g of sodium bicarbonate, 1.5 g of potassium chloride and 20 g of glucose, though 40 g of sucrose also might be used. The purpose of these solutions is to replace the lost fluids and electrolytes while also adding a small amount of sugar to supply energy.


When treating diarrhea, replacement of the electrolytes is of utmost importance, so a saltwater mixture is better than one made with only sugar. In fact, sugar water solutions can exacerbate diarrhea if they provide little salt, and solutions with a high amount of sugar can exacerbate dehydration, reports. Saltwater preparations that have too much salt, however, also can increase dehydration, so it is better to use commercially prepared solutions rather than run the risk of making your own saltwater and inadvertently adding too many electrolytes.

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