We’ve all been there: One day, you’re just sitting at home or out on a walk and you get that horrible, grumbling, painful feeling in your stomach. You rush to the bathroom only to find that you’ve got the runs.
As you prepare yourself to stay within close range of a toilet for the next few hours or days, you wonder, “Why me?!”
Unfortunately, diarrhea is an all too common occurrence in our world, but when you’re in a true survival situation it can be more than just an inconvenience – it can be life-threatening.
That being said, there are a whole lot of misconceptions out there about what causes diarrhea and what you should do about it, especially in an emergency situation with limited medical resources.
Thankfully, we’re here to help. Coming up, we’ll walk you through the medical background of diarrhea and give you some useful tips for knowing when the runs are caused by more than just a bad piece of fish.
Plus, we’ll even clue you into the best methods for preventing and treating diarrhea in a SHTF situation.
Table of Contents
What is Diarrhea?
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s cover the basics about what diarrhea actually is.
Also known as dysentery, the runs, or the trots, diarrhea is when a person has at least three loose and watery bowel movements in one day.
Other symptoms of diarrhea can include:
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Loss of bowel control (or continence)
- An urgent need to rush to the toilet.
The most common type of diarrhea is what we call “acute diarrhea,” which is when these loose and watery bowel movements only last for a few days and then clear up on their own.
Alternatively, someone can have “chronic diarrhea,” which is any loose and watery bowel movements that last for four or more weeks… yikes!
Generally, chronic diarrhea is caused by some sort of underlying chronic disease, like Crohn’s while acute diarrhea is the result of bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
What Causes Diarrhea?
The problem with diarrhea is that it can be a sign of a whole host of different illnesses and issues, some of which are serious and some of which aren’t.
The trick is learning how to figure out where your digestive problems came from. Here are some of the causes of diarrhea:
- Chronic illnesses that affect the stomach, small intestine, large intestine, or other parts of the digestive tract, including:
- Food sensitivities and intolerances, such as lactose intolerance and gluten intolerance
- Viruses including:
- Rotavirus (most common among children)
- Norovirus (common in high population density areas, such as dorms and ships)
- Seasonal flu
- Bacteria in food or water that’s been contaminated, including:
- Parasites (more common in developing countries)
So, as we can see, diarrhea can be a sign of A LOT of different illnesses and conditions, so we have to be careful about how we go about treating it, especially in a survival SHTF situation.
While we don’t have space here to go into detail about the signs and symptoms of each and every one of these conditions, it’s worth doing a bit of research on them all during your free time.
This will help you be better prepared to treat yourself or your family in an emergency situation.
When is Diarrhea a Medical Emergency?
Do I Need to See a Doctor for Diarrhea?
The problem with diarrhea is that it can be really difficult to know when it’s actually a medical emergency and when it’s just an uncomfortable inconvenience.
Although the vast majority of diarrhea cases in the United States and other developed countries are mild (even if they don’t feel that way!), sometimes, they can be severe enough to warrant seeking professional medical attention, if possible.
What’s important to us as preppers is the ability to distinguish between mild and severe cases of diarrhea. In general, one should probably seek professional medical advice (if possible) if they have:
- Diarrhea that lasts for more than 2 days (for adults)
- Diarrhea that lasts for more than 24 hours (for children)
- Blood or pus in the stool
- Black and tarry stools
- Severe abdominal or rectal pain
- Signs of dehydration (lethargy, headache)
- Fever at or above 102 degrees Fahrenheit
As preppers, though, we know that we might not always be able to access traditional medical help in a true emergency situation.
Of course, while getting someone with severe diarrhea to a doctor would be ideal, if we can’t, our job is to be able to:
- Prevent diarrhea
- Identify the signs and symptoms of diarrhea
- Know when someone has a severe case of diarrhea
- Treat and manage diarrhea with home remedies and medications
Now that you have a foundational knowledge of what diarrhea is and how to identify severe cases of it, we’ll transition into talking about what you can actually do about it in a SHTF situation.
As we’ve mentioned, getting professional medical attention for someone with severe diarrhea is ideal, but if that’s not possible, we need to be ready.
Should I Do Anything to Stop It on My Own?
Okay, so before we get too far down the rabbit hole of different ways to stop diarrhea, we need to talk about whether or not this is something that we should actually do.
We know it sounds crazy, but there are situations where “stopping” diarrhea with medication is really not a good idea.
What do we mean? Well, in most cases of diarrhea, the diarrhea is actually what we call “self-limiting.”
This means that the vast majority of cases of diarrhea (especially in developed countries, like the US) will go away on their own without actual medical treatment.
So, while there are quite a few “antidiarrheal” medications available on the market today that are quite good at stopping the runs in their tracks, they’re not always your best option.
Especially if you don’t know why you have diarrhea, taking an antidiarrheal can simply keep the bacteria, parasite, or virus in your body for longer than necessary.
In fact, diarrhea is one of the body’s natural responses to a gastrointestinal invader, like a bacteria, parasite, or virus.
In general, if diarrhea is caused by some sort of infection or ulcerative colitis and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBD), these antidiarrheal drugs can do much more harm than good.
Plus, if you take too many over-the-counter antidiarrheals, they can have the opposite effect and, well… “clog things up.”
Should you do something to treat diarrhea on your own? Sure, you should certainly take steps to help yourself feel better as your illness works its way through your system.
But, we recommend exercising caution before you jump right to using those OTC diarrhea medications. In fact, there are quite a few other options you have for managing diarrhea that you can try before you start taking pills.
How to Stop Diarrhea
As we’ve mentioned, there are a whole lot of remedies and treatments out there for diarrhea if you can’t get to a doctor in an emergency situation.
While professional medical care is your best bet in a severe diarrhea situation, if you want to truly stop diarrhea, your only real option is to try over-the-counter antidiarrheal medications.
Over-The-Counter Antidiarrhea Medication
We’ve already touched on this subject a bit, but OTC antidiarrhea medications are many people’s first defense against diarrhea.
We’ve already made our point about being cautious before using them, but they are worth mentioning, since antidiarrheals are, well, made to stop diarrhea.
Do keep in mind, however, that you should NOT take antidiarrheal drugs without consulting a doctor if you have:
- Other severe or chronic illnesses
- Blood, pus, or mucus in your stool
Loperamide (Imodium) works by reducing the number and speed of your body’s intestinal contractions, which then results in a decrease in diarrhea.
Some of the side effects of loperamide include vomiting, nausea, dizziness, constipation, and drowsiness, as well as increased abdominal pain.
In general, people who are using loperamide for the first time should avoid driving and operating heavy machinery until they are familiar with how it affects them.
Bismuth Subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol), on the other hand, basically reduces the quantity of water that gets into your digestive system.
As you can imagine, this can result in constipation if you take too much, but other side effects include a black tongue or black-colored stools.
Anyone who takes Pepto-Bismol should be very careful about their dosage as overdoses do happen and can be very dangerous.
How to Treat Diarrhea
Unfortunately, there really aren’t any other ways to completely stop diarrhea at home unless you take antidiarrheal medications.
However, as we’ve mentioned, there are many reasons why you should really try to wait it out for a few days before you start taking lots of OTC medications to stop your diarrhea.
Plus, while there aren’t many things we can do to stop diarrhea at home without treating the underlying problem (for example, the bacteria, virus, or parasite causing it), there are plenty of things we can do to make ourselves feel a whole lot better.
Drink water and electrolytes
First and foremost, diarrhea is when one has loose, watery stools. When someone has diarrhea, their body is getting rid of a whole lot of water, which can cause pretty severe dehydration if left untreated.
In fact, dehydration as a result of diarrhea is one of the top killers of children around the world (WHO).
Dehydration might not seem like too big a deal, but if your body is constantly flushing water out of your system and you’re not drinking enough to replenish yourself, then you could easily find yourself in a pretty bad situation.
While dehydration can pretty easily be treated in a hospital, in a SHTF situation, you need to take care of yourself and your family before their dehydration gets out of control.
Do keep in mind that anyone that’s dehydrated needs to drink water and electrolytes. Just drinking water alone can result in an equally dangerous and potentially life-threatening condition known as hyponatremia.
The solution? Drink water with electrolyte tablets or with Gatorade powder to help your body get the nutrients it needs. Thankfully, these are both easy things to stockpile and should certainly be something you have in your emergency stores.
DiaResQ is a relatively new product that’s been shown to be effective in treating diarrhea at home. Unlike the OTC medications we’ve discussed already, DiaResQ is a drug-free treatment for diarrhea.
Basically, DiaResQ is what’s known as a “food for special dietary use,” which means it’s neither a drug nor a supplement.
DiaResQ is made from colostrum, which is a type of cow’s milk that’s very nutrient-rich and contains a lot of immunoglobulin IgG antibodies, which have been shown to help the intestines.
DiaResQ is meant to be mixed with water and then consumed for relief from diarrhea.
It’s a great product to have in your emergency supplies for SHTF treatment of diarrhea.
Witch hazel is a well-known remedy for diarrhea, as well as other illnesses and conditions.
In particular, the tannins in witch hazel are known to fight bacteria, so some people have found relief from their diarrhea by taking it in small doses.
To use witch hazel for diarrhea, you’ll want to have some dried witch hazel leaves on hand and use it to make tea. Just like with essential oils, it’s worth having a stock of dried witch hazel in your emergency supply kit.
Other Potential Herbal Remedies
There are a whole lot of different herbal remedies out there that might help with diarrhea but haven’t been extensively studied. These include:
- Raspberry leaf
- Sunflower leaf
In general, these herbs are used individually to make tea for anyone who has diarrhea.
However, as we’ve mentioned, there is no scientific evidence to support the use of these herbal remedies, so it could be worth speaking to a homeopathic expert to get some more in-depth information about each of these herbs.
BRAT Diet and Bland Food
The BRAT diet consists of bananas, rice, apples, and toast and is designed to help people with upset stomachs by limiting them to the consumption of bland food.
Since spicy and flavorful foods are known to cause stomach issues for a lot of people, avoiding them, and giving your body simple, easy-to-break-down food while you’re sick can help you be more comfortable if you have diarrhea.
Zinc supplements are known to reduce both the total duration of diarrhea by up to 25%, especially in children.
Additionally, they can reduce the amount of stool that’s passed by up to 30% and they are quickly gaining traction as one of the top treatment methods to use for children with diarrhea.
While it’s hard to find zinc supplements on their own, you can often find mixed dietary vitamins that include it.
If you have children that routinely suffer from diarrhea, these could be a good option, but it’s worth speaking to their pediatrician first.
While being able to treat diarrhea is important for any survivalist or prepper, being able to prevent diarrhea is perhaps even more important.
When it comes to acute diarrhea, more often than not, the cause is some sort of contagious gastrointestinal (GI) disease that spreads from person to person or from unsanitary water or food conditions.
For contagious GI diseases, like norovirus and rotavirus, frequent handwashing is critical.
Alternatively, for most other causes of acute diarrhea, maintaining clean cooking environments and being sure to fully cook all raw meats, poultry, and fish can prevent a lot of problems down the line.
Finally, it’s important that people avoid drinking unpurified or untreated water, as dirty water can easily harbor an incredible amount of dangerous bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
This is why it’s important to have some method for treating, filtering, or purifying water in your SHTF emergency supplies.
While diarrhea is an unfortunate aspect of being human, there are plenty of ways we, as preppers, can avoid, manage, and treat it, even in a SHTF situation.
What’s important is that we understand what diarrhea is, what causes it, and how to identify a severe case of it.
With this knowledge in hand, as well as an assortment of OTC and herbal remedies, we can be prepared to deal with the runs or whatever else comes our way.
Gabrielle is a wilderness survival expert, mountaineering guide, and professional outdoor educator, with specialties that include firearms handling and wilderness medicine. She is also a freelance writer for a variety of outdoor and survival publications.