William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
In this Article
How is diarrhea treated?
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Absorbents are compounds that absorb water. Absorbents that are taken orally bind water in the small intestine and colon and make diarrheal stools less watery. They also may bind toxic chemicals produced by bacteria that cause the small intestine to secrete fluid; however, the importance of toxin binding in reducing diarrhea is unclear.
The two main absorbents are attapulgite and polycarbophil, and they are both available without prescriptions.
Examples of products containing attapulgite are:
Examples of products containing polycarbophil are:
Equalactin is the antidiarrheal product containing attapulgite; however the laxative, Konsyl, also contains attapulgite. Attapulgite and polycarbophil remain in the intestine and, therefore, have no side effects outside of the gastrointestinal tract. They may occasionally cause constipation and bloating. One concern is that absorbents also can bind medications and interfere with their absorption into the body. For this reason, it often is recommended that medications and absorbents be taken several hours apart so that they are physically separated within the intestine.
Anti-motility medications are drugs that relax the muscles of the small intestine and/or the colon. Relaxation results in slower flow of intestinal contents. Slower flow allows more time for water to be absorbed from the intestine and colon and reduces the water content of stool. Cramps, due to spasm of the intestinal muscles, also are relieved by the muscular relaxation.
The two main anti-motility medications are loperamide (Imodium), which is available without a prescription, and diphenoxylate (Lomotil), which requires a prescription. Both medications are related to opiates (for example, codeine ) but neither has the pain-relieving effects of opiates.
Loperamide (Imodium), though related to opiates, does not cause addiction.
Diphenoxylate is a man-made medication that at high doses can be addictive because of its opiate-like, euphoric (mood-elevating) effects. In order to prevent abuse of diphenoxylate and addiction, a second medication, atropine, is added to loperamide in Lomotil. If too much Lomotil is ingested, unpleasant side effects from too much atropine will occur.
Loperamide and diphenoxylate are safe and well-tolerated. There are some precautions, however, that should be observed.
Many bismuth-containing preparations are available around the world. Bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) is available in the United States. It contains two potentially active ingredients, bismuth and salicylate (aspirin). It is not clear how effective bismuth compounds are, except in traveler's diarrhea and the treatment of H. pylori infection of the stomach where they have been shown to be effective. It also is not clear how bismuth subsalicylate might work. It is thought to have some antibiotic-like properties that affect bacteria that cause diarrhea. The salicylate is anti-inflammatory and could reduce secretion of water by reducing inflammation. Bismuth also might directly reduce the secretion of water by the intestine.
Pepto-Bismol is well-tolerated. Minor side effects include darkening of the stool and tongue. There are several precautions that should be observed when using Pepto-Bismol.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/15/2014
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