How Does Diarrhea Medicine Work?

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  • Diarrhea is defined as an increase in the frequency or looseness of bowel movements. Whether it's caused by bacteria, a virus or some type of inflammation, diarrhea is a symptom of many health conditions and strikes all of us at some point in time. Luckily, several types of medications exist that can help combat diarrhea. Understanding how these medications work can help you be more successful in battling diarrhea in the future.

  • There are four main types of anti-diarrheal medications. The first are anti-motility drugs, which includes both loperamide and diphenoxylate. These drugs delay the flow of waste through the digestive system by relaxing the muscles surrounding the small and large intestines. Therefore, the stools are not as watery, since more water has time to be absorbed while in the intestine. These types of medications have the added benefit of reducing the abdominal cramps associated with some types of diarrhea.

  • The second commonly used drugs in the treatment of diarrhea are absorbents. Just as the name implies, drugs in this category absorb or bind with the excess water and toxins in the intestines, thus making the stools more firm. Since these types of drugs stay localized in the intestines, they are generally considered to be very safe. Attapulgite and polycarbophil are the two most widely used types of absorbent medications.

  • Bismuth medications are a third type of anti-diarrheal compound and are probably the most widely used. These are typically only successful in treating very mild forms of diarrhea. The highly recognizable brands of bismuth medications include Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate, which are actually both forms of bismuth subsalicylate, a combination of bismuth and aspirin. Bismuth may work by binding with toxins in the body, although it hasn't been proven clinically to be effective, while the aspirin component may reduce associated inflammation within the intestines.

  • One final category of medication occasionally utilized in the treatment of diarrhea is antibiotics. Certain forms of diarrhea caused by bacteria may require antibiotics to help rid the body of the bacteria, such as dysentery or other severe forms of traveler's diarrhea. The type of antibiotic depends on the type of bacteria present upon fecal culture. Antibiotics work by killing off the diarrhea-causing bacteria in the intestines.

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