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Diarrhea, or watery stools, can be embarrassing and strike at the worst times, such as during a vacation or special event.

But while diarrhea often improves on its own within two to three days, a few remedies can help promote firmer stools faster.

Keep reading to learn about five fast-acting methods, along with what typically causes diarrhea and prevention tips.

Some people see diarrhea as nothing more than a mild nuisance and let it run its course, especially since some bouts lasts less than 24 hours.

You might stay close to home or a bathroom, and load up on fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration.

But what if you can’t stay home?

In this case, taking an anti-diarrheal medication may reduce or completely eliminate loose stools after the first dose. Look for over-the-counter products like Imodium or Pepto-Bismol, which have the ingredients loperamide and bismuth subsalicylate, respectively.

The active ingredient in Imodium works swiftly because it slows the movement of fluid through the intestines. This can quickly restore normal bowel function. Pepto-Bismol, on the other hand, helps kill diarrhea-causing bacteria in your intestines.

Rice water is another fast, effective remedy for diarrhea. Boil 1 cup of rice and 2 cups of water for about 10 minutes, or until the water becomes cloudy.

Strain the rice and preserve the water for consumption. Rice water not only provides your body with fluid to prevent dehydration, it can also reduce the duration of diarrhea. Rice water has a binding effect in the digestive tract, resulting in firmer, bulkier stools.

Taking a probiotic supplement or eating probiotic foods like some brands of yogurt may also stop diarrhea.

Sometimes, diarrhea results from an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. Probiotics help restore balance by providing a higher level of good bacteria. This can promote normal bowel function and shorten the duration of diarrhea.

Diarrhea from bacteria or a parasite may need an antibiotic. In this case, diarrhea can occur after coming in contact with contaminated food or water, often while traveling.

Keep in mind that antibiotics are ineffective when viral infections cause diarrhea. This type of diarrhea must run its course.

A diet known as BRAT may also quickly relieve diarrhea.

BRAT stands for bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. This diet is effective due to the bland nature of these foods, and the fact that they’re starchy, low-fiber foods.

These foods have a binding effect in the digestive tract to make stools bulkier. And since they’re bland, they’re less likely to irritate your stomach or worsen diarrhea.

Along with these items, you could also eat (similarly bland) saltine crackers, clear broth, and potatoes.

Understanding the cause of diarrhea can help you avoid future bouts. Common causes include:

Stomach virus

Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu) is one cause of diarrhea. Along with watery stools, you may have:

  • stomach pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • low-grade fever

These viruses include norovirus and rotavirus, which can develop after eating or drinking contaminated food, or sharing personal items with an infected person.

Medication

Sensitivity to certain medications can also trigger bouts of diarrhea. This may happen after taking antibiotics, pain relievers, or cancer-fighting drugs.

Foodborne illness

Also called food poisoning, diarrhea can develop if you eat food contaminated by bacteria, parasites, or toxins. Food-borne illnesses can include those caused by the following bacteria:

Food allergy or sensitivity

If you’re lactose intolerant, diarrhea may develop after eating dairy products. These include milk, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt.

Having a food allergy or sensitivity may also trigger diarrhea. For example, you may have diarrhea after eating foods containing gluten — wheat, pasta, or rye.

Artificial sweeteners

This is a lesser known cause of diarrhea. But if you’re sensitive to artificial sweeteners, you may have a bout of diarrhea after eating foods or drinks containing these sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are found in diet drinks, sugar-free products, chewing gum, and even some candy.

Digestive problems

Diarrhea is sometimes a symptom of digestive disorders. You might have frequent bouts of loose stools if you’re diagnosed with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Also, irritable bowel syndrome can cause alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation.

Diarrhea caused by a virus or bacterial infection is contagious. You can protect yourself by:

  • washing your hands frequently
  • avoiding sick people
  • disinfecting commonly touched surfaces
  • not sharing personal items

If you have diarrhea after starting a new medication, ask your doctor about an alternative drug or possibly lowering your dosage.

You can also protect yourself by thoroughly cooking food and washing fruits and vegetables before preparing. Also, make sure you know the proper way to wash your hands.

Use warm, soapy water and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. If water isn’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

To identify possible food allergies or sensitivities, keep a food journal and write down everything you eat for a few weeks. Make a note of days that you have diarrhea.

Keeping a food journal can help determine whether you have a lactose intolerance or a gluten sensitivity. You can then try an elimination diet. Remove suspected problem foods from your diet and see if your symptoms improve.

For a digestive disorder, talk to your doctor if you feel that your current therapy isn’t working. You may need to adjust your medication.

See a doctor for diarrhea that lasts longer than three days, or if you show signs of dehydration. This can include extreme thirst, decreased urination, and dizziness.

You should also see a doctor if you have:

  • a fever above 102°F (38.9°C)
  • bloody or black stools
  • abdominal pain

Diarrhea can come and go within 24 hours. Or it can last for days and disrupt your plans. But between medication, low-fiber foods, and avoiding foods that irritate your digestive system — such as dairy or artificial sweeteners — you can quickly relieve symptoms and enjoy diarrhea-free days.