Health A-Z

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Dehydration is the biggest danger of traveler's diarrhea, so replacing fluids is extremely important. If you have mild diarrhea, drink broth and diluted fruit juice or sport drinks. Alternate salty and sweet beverages (such as tomato juice and fruit juice) to replace your body's electrolytes. Electrolytes are the charged particles that make up salt. Electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium play a crucial role in many functions of your body's cells.

If you have severe diarrhea (more than five unformed stools a day), you should drink a special formulation called "oral rehydration solution" to replace the electrolytes you're losing. Pharmacies in most countries carry these products, which can be mixed with clean drinking water. You also can make your own solution by adding a half-teaspoon of salt, a half-teaspoon of baking soda and 4 tablespoons of sugar to 1 liter of clean water.

Keep in mind that fruit juice, broth and sports drinks do not contain the right concentration of electrolytes for this purpose.

In most cases, diarrhea ends within three to five days without antibiotic treatment. However, it is a good idea to get a prescription from your doctor, and bring the antibiotic medication with you in case you need it. You should take antibiotics if you develop moderate or severe symptoms, such as fever, more than four episodes of diarrhea per day, or blood or mucus in the stool. If you develop milder symptoms, you may also want to take antibiotics, as the diarrhea will usually improve within a day of treatment.

Medications such as loperamide (Imodium) or diphenoxylate (Lomotil) may help to decrease the frequency of bowel movements, but they cannot prevent diarrhea and they do not get rid of the infection. They are useful for long bus or car trips or other situations where access to a bathroom is unavailable or inconvenient. These drugs may actual prolong the duration of symptoms with certain bacterial infections.

You should discontinue these drugs and consult a health professional if you develop abdominal pain or a temperature over 101 degrees Fahrenheit or if you have blood in your stool.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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