What to Take for Diarrhea and Vomiting (and What Not To)

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This survival-medicine website provides general information, not individual advice. Most scenarios assume the victim cannot get expert medical help. Please see the disclaimer.

Are Your Diarrhea Treatments Making You Worse?

Sick childby James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Many things people do or take for diarrhea and vomiting at home just make things worse. And since these are common complaints in my office, I expect they’ll be in disasters. In fact, the dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea is a major cause of death in Third World countries where getting to a doctor may be next to impossible. Children are especially vulnerable.

At the clinic where I work, we usually treat at least a couple of diarrhea/vomiting cases a week with IV fluids. But what if they’re not available? What can you take or do at home that actually will help?

Perhaps just as important, what should you not do to make things worse?

What Not to Do for Diarrhea

These things can make diarrhea worse:

  1. Over-the-counter medicines. They may decrease diarrhea for a while, but they don’t limit the time you’re going to have it. Sometimes they can make it last longer. Taking Pepto-Bismol for traveler’s diarrhea is an exception.
  2. Sports drinks. Do drink the proper fluids, starting with water. Pedialyte is ideal for children or adults. Sports drinks have too much sugar, which may make the diarrhea worse. Try diluting them 1:1 with water. Nursing babies can continue breast milk but may need extra fluids to avoid dehydration.
  3. Not eating as you’re getting better, or eating the wrong things. Replenish your strength and start the BRAT diet after the diarrhea has calmed down. That’s Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, Toast (no butter). Plain boiled potatoes and noodles are also good. But nothing else for 24 hours.
  4. Greasy foods and milk (other than breast milk). Avoid them for several days. Some people, especially children, may be unable to digest milk properly for days, even up to a month.

Finally, don’t automatically take antibiotics. Even with bacterial infections, like e. coli and salmonella, they don’t decrease the length or severity of the infection. There are exceptions, so check with your doctor for any diarrhea not letting up within 24 hours.

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What Not to Do for Vomiting

These things can make vomiting worse:

  1. Testing your tolerance. I learned this lesson when I caught a bug in college. A few minutes after vomiting, I’d try swigging some fluids because I was worried about getting dehydrated. I’d vomit them up and drink some more. I was harming myself more than I was helping. Every time I vomited I lost not only what I had drunk but also electrolytes like sodium and potassium from my stomach juices.
  2. Not letting your stomach rest. Sometimes a rest is all it takes. Wait a few hours. Then start sipping, slowly. For a baby or adult, start with a teaspoon at a time. Wait ten minutes and try another. If it doesn’t stay down, wait fifteen or twenty minutes. After a few times, increase it to two teaspoons, then four.
  3. Gulping large amounts. Avoid the temptation even if you’re thirsty. Your stomach tolerates smaller amounts better. Don’t test the limits. Remember, vomiting is worse than not drinking at all.
How to Make Your Own Dehydration Fighter

salt shakerDehydration from diarrhea is a major killer of children in Third World countries. Many can’t get medical help. That’s why the World Health Organization has come up with an Oral Rehydration Salts packet that can be dissolved in clean water. If used properly, the WHO says it can treat up to eighty percent of even the worst cases of diarrhea.

Pedialyte is a commercial version of oral rehydration salts. If you make the following homemade recipe, be sure to measure ingredients accurately. Too much sugar will make the diarrhea worse. Too much salt could be dangerous. Preferably use a measuring device. (Although the WHO thinks this is the ideal strength, if you have a question of measurement, err on the dilute side.)

Recipe for Homemade Rehydration Salts

For every quart (liter) of water add:

  • 6 level teaspoons of sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt

This version obviously lacks potassium, so you can mix in about 4 ounces of orange juice (use a teaspoon or two less of the pure sugar) or have a bite of a banana.

At least one study has shown you can substitute up to 10 teaspoons (50 ml) of honey for the sugar.

How Much to Drink

According to the World Health Organization, if you have diarrhea, you should drink the following amounts to avoid dehydration:

  • Children under two years old: ¼ to ½ cup (50-100 ml, or 2 to 3 ounces) after each loose stool, up to ½ quart (1/2 liter) per day.
  • Children two to nine: ½ cup to 1 cup (100-200 ml, or 3 to 7 ounces) after each loose stool, up to 1 quart (1 liter) per day.
  • People ten and over: as much as they want, up to 2 quarts per day.

If the person seems to be getting dehydrated, give up to 1 ounce per pound (80 ml per kg) within a four-hour period.

Signs of dehydration include:

  • Dizziness
  • Lethargy
  • Sunken eyes
  • Not tearing when crying
  • Not urinating/wetting diaper

The following are reasons to get to medical help ASAP, even if it’s difficult, since you may need IV fluids and prescription medications—sometimes even hospitalization:

  • Signs of dehydration
  • Bloody bowel movements
  • Fever over 101 F
  • Abdominal pain that doesn’t go away after a bowel movement
  • Vomiting that lasts more than a few hours
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than a day
  • The victim is a baby, chronically ill or elderly person, or diabetic

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Sick child photo © 2009 by Sean Dreilinger on Flickr.
Salt photo by Jim Forest on Flickr.

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  • Lenka Srinu

    After eating food or drinking water immediately i m getting motions, can u suggest me

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      It could a lot of things such as irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance. If avoiding milk and cheese products doesn’t help a lot, I’d see a doctor.

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  • http://teguhiw.me/ Teguh IW

    taking carbon adsorbent when get diarrhea caused by food poisonong is safe?

  • Bobisek 007

    Hello just experienced the worst vomiting and diahrea ever. I got three little ones all of them born natural way no painkillers and one of then born at home in the bathroom. I would say til 3 days ago it was the worst pain but after going to the restroom and vomit and have a diahria every 3-4 hours for one day I feel like I was dying. I dont wish the pain to the worst enemy. What help me a lot was sucking on ice at first cause when I drank water everything went out both ways. Still dont feel like eating and when I smell food I would feel sick. Sipping on flat coke helped me too but still feel weak and dont feel like getting up from my bed. Got a temperature 37.9 so doctor adviced me to take paracetamol. Other thing that keeps me calm is cold towel over my forhead and fan blowing on me. I suffer from IBS and migraines. I am 33 years old and healthy until now. My last baby is 10 months old. Please what else should I do to feel better? Thank you Kate

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      I really don’t have anything to add other than what’s in the post. Sorry, I know it must be miserable. I’m assuming you’ve checked with your doctor and will check again if you don’t continue to improve.

      • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

        Possibly some probiotics like the lactobacillus products you can find in the grocery might help if you’re still having diarrhea.

  • shagayla

    Hey got really bad abdominal pain and vomiting everything in sight been using the bathroom four to five and hour or less need help please

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If it’s not getting better, you should probably talk to your doctor or go to an urgent care clinic.

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  • kris

    If you were allready prescribed promethazine for nausea not relating to the illness you currently have. Could you use the promethazine to stop your nausea?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Promethazine helps the general symptom of nausea. It doesn’t specifically treat or cure anything. So, if the symptom is nausea, promethazine might help. Of course, the real question is what is causing the nausea. So, know and treat the cause. Promethazine may help the nausea. One more thing. Always read and follow directions, know side effects, precautions, and interactions.

  • Yurikha

    Early on the morning, I woke up having neck pain and couldn’t sleep till I felt like I had diarrhea and needed to vomit. Eventually, I did. This was the second time I have had diarrhea and vomiting. Hopefully, this one will not last for about 2 days or so because of food poisoning. I’m sure it’s food poisoning for this time as well.

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