How To Treat Diarrhea In The Elderly

As we age, our digestive system undergoes changes that can make us more susceptible to certain digestive issues.

Published On:
October 25, 2023

As we age, our digestive system undergoes changes that can make us more susceptible to certain digestive issues. For example, the digestive tract may become less efficient at absorbing nutrients from food, leading to malnutrition or vitamin deficiencies. The muscles in the digestive tract may also weaken, causing food to move more slowly through the system and leading to constipation.

Additionally, the gut microbiome, which plays a crucial role in digestion and immune function, may become imbalanced due to changes in diet, medication use, or underlying medical conditions.

These changes can increase the risk of developing digestive issues such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas, or abdominal pain.

Symptoms of Diarrhea in the Elderly

Diarrhea in the elderly can be a common problem that can cause discomfort and lead to other complications if left untreated. Here are some common symptoms to look out for and when to seek medical attention:

  • Frequent loose or watery bowel movements
  • Abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, or nausea
  • Dehydration, which can cause symptoms such as dry mouth, thirst, dark urine, fatigue, or confusion

It's important to seek medical attention if diarrhea persists for more than a few days or if it's accompanied by severe symptoms such as:

  • Blood in the stool
  • High fever
  • Uncontrolled vomiting
  • Severe abdominal pain or swelling

In some cases, diarrhea in the elderly may be caused by underlying medical conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, or viral or bacterial infections. It may also be a side effect of certain medications or treatments. Your healthcare provider can help determine the underlying cause of your diarrhea and recommend appropriate treatment options.

Factors Caused by Diarrhea

Diarrhea is a common problem among the elderly, and it can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

Medication side effects

Certain medications, such as antibiotics and laxatives, can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut and lead to diarrhea.


Elderly individuals may be more susceptible to infections that can cause diarrhea, such as norovirus or Clostridium difficile.

Underlying medical conditions

Chronic conditions like inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease may predispose older adults to diarrhea.

5 Tips for Managing Diarrhea in the Elderly

Stay hydrated

One of the most important things to do when you have diarrhea is to stay hydrated. Diarrhea can cause you to lose a lot of fluids, so it's important to drink plenty of water and other fluids, such as clear broths, sports drinks, and electrolyte solutions. Avoid drinks that are high in sugar, caffeine, or alcohol, as these can make diarrhea worse.

Eat a bland diet

When you have diarrhea, it's important to eat a bland diet that is easy on your digestive system. Stick to foods that are low in fiber and fat, such as bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. Avoid spicy or fatty foods, dairy products, and anything that may irritate your digestive system.

Take over-the-counter medications

If your diarrhea is mild, you can take over-the-counter medications such as loperamide (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) to help control your symptoms. Be sure to follow the instructions on the package carefully and don't take more than the recommended dose.

Talk to your doctor

If your diarrhea is severe or lasts for more than a few days, it's important to talk to your doctor. They may recommend prescription medications, such as antibiotics or antiviral drugs, to help treat the underlying cause of your diarrhea. They may also recommend tests to rule out any underlying medical conditions.

Practice good hygiene

Diarrhea can be contagious, so it's important to practice good hygiene to prevent the spread of germs. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, especially after using the bathroom, and avoid sharing utensils, towels, or other personal items with others.

Best Foods for Diarrhea in the Elderly

When you have diarrhea, it's important to eat foods that are easy to digest and won't irritate your digestive system. Here are some of the best foods for diarrhea in the elderly:


Bananas are a great food to eat when you have diarrhea because they're easy to digest and can help replace lost potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte that helps regulate fluid balance in the body, which can be lost during diarrhea.

White Rice

White rice is another good option when you have diarrhea because it's easy to digest and can help absorb excess fluids in the digestive system. Be sure to avoid brown rice or other whole grains, which can be harder to digest.


Applesauce is a good source of pectin, a type of soluble fiber that can help thicken stool and reduce diarrhea. It's also easy to digest and can provide some much-needed energy.


Toast made from white bread is another good option when you have diarrhea because it's low in fiber and easy to digest. Be sure to avoid whole-grain bread or anything with seeds or nuts, as these can irritate your digestive system.

Chicken Broth

Chicken broth is a good way to stay hydrated and replenish lost electrolytes without irritating your digestive system. Be sure to choose low-sodium chicken broth if possible, as high levels of sodium can make dehydration worse.

By incorporating these foods into your diet, you may be able to reduce symptoms of diarrhea while keeping yourself properly nourished and hydrated. As always, talk to your healthcare provider before making any significant changes to your diet or treatment plan.

Foods to Avoid When Experiencing Diarrhea as an Elderly Individual

Certain foods can worsen diarrhea symptoms and should be avoided by elderly individuals experiencing diarrhea. Here are some examples of foods to avoid:

  • High-fat or greasy foods, such as fried foods or rich desserts
  • Dairy products, including milk, cheese, and ice cream
  • Spicy or heavily seasoned foods
  • Raw fruits and vegetables that are difficult to digest, such as broccoli or citrus fruits
  • Beans and other legumes that can cause gas and bloating
  • Caffeine and alcohol, which can irritate the digestive system

Instead of these foods, opt for a bland diet that is easy on your digestive system. Stick to low-fiber options like white rice, boiled potatoes, and toast. It's also important to drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.

Ways to Minimize Discomfort and Irritation During Diarrhea

Frequent bowel movements during diarrhea can cause discomfort and irritation, especially for elderly individuals. Here are some ways to minimize these symptoms:

Use a barrier cream

Frequent wiping can lead to skin irritation and discomfort. Using a barrier cream such as petroleum jelly or zinc oxide can help protect the skin from further irritation.

Use moist wipes instead of dry toilet paper

Dry toilet paper can be abrasive on sensitive skin. Using moist wipes or a bidet can help clean the area without further irritating it.

Apply heat

Applying heat to the abdomen can help soothe cramps and discomfort caused by frequent bowel movements. A heating pad or warm compress can provide relief.

Try relaxation techniques

Stress and anxiety can worsen diarrhea symptoms. Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga may help reduce stress levels and improve overall well-being.

By following these tips, elderly individuals experiencing diarrhea may be able to minimize discomfort and irritation caused by frequent bowel movements.

When to Get Professional Help for Diarrhea

When experiencing diarrhea, it can be difficult to determine when it's time to seek professional help. In most cases, diarrhea will resolve on its own within a few days with proper self-care and management. However, there are certain circumstances in which seeking medical attention is necessary.

If you experience any of the following symptoms, it's important to seek professional help:

  • Blood in your stool
  • Severe abdominal pain or cramping
  • High fever (above 102°F)
  • Signs of dehydration such as dark urine, dry mouth and throat, dizziness, or confusion
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than three days

Additionally, if you have an underlying health condition such as inflammatory bowel disease or a weakened immune system due to cancer treatment or HIV/AIDS, you should seek medical attention at the first sign of diarrhea.

Your healthcare provider can perform tests to determine the underlying cause of your diarrhea and recommend appropriate treatment options. Depending on the cause of your diarrhea, treatment may include antibiotics or antiviral medications, changes in diet and lifestyle habits, or other prescription medications.

Remember that seeking professional help early on can help prevent complications and ensure a speedy recovery.


In conclusion, diarrhea can be a frustrating and uncomfortable problem, but it is treatable. By staying hydrated, eating a bland diet, taking over-the-counter medications, talking to your doctor, and practicing good hygiene, you can help alleviate your symptoms and feel better. If your diarrhea persists or worsens, be sure to seek medical attention. Remember to always consult with your healthcare provider before starting any new treatment plan.



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