Viral Diarrhea (Adult)

Diarrhea caused by a virus is often called viral gastroenteritis. Many people call it the stomach flu, but it has nothing to do with the flu. The virus that causes diarrhea affects the stomach and intestinal tract. It often lasts from 2 to 7 days. Diarrhea is the passing of loose, watery stools 3 or more times a day.


Along with diarrhea, you may have these symptoms:

  • Belly (abdominal) pain and cramping

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Loss of bowel control

  • Fever and chills

  • Bloody stools

The danger from repeated diarrhea is dehydration. This is when your body loses too much water and other fluids.

Antibiotics don't work well in treating this illness. But there are things you can do at home that will help.

Home care

Follow these home care tips:

  • If symptoms are severe, rest at home for the next 24 hours or until you are feeling better.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer. This helps prevent the spread of infection. Wash your hands after touching anyone who is sick.

  • Teach all people in your home when and how to wash their hands Wet your hands with clean, running water. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. If you need a timer, try humming the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice. Rinse your hands well. Dry them with a clean towel.

  • Wash your hands after using the toilet and before meals. Clean the toilet after each use.

Food preparation:

  • People with diarrhea should not make food for others. When making food, wash your hands after touching anyone who is sick.

  • Wash your hands after using items that have been in contact with raw food. This includes cutting boards, countertops, and knives.

  • Keep uncooked meats away from cooked and ready-to-eat foods.


  • You may use acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen or naproxen to control fever unless another medicine was prescribed. In addition:

    • Talk with your healthcare provider before using these medicines if you have chronic liver or kidney disease, or ever had a stomach ulcer or GI (gastrointestinal) bleeding.

    • Don’t give aspirin (or medicine that contains aspirin) to anyone younger than age 19 unless directed by the provider. Taking aspirin can put them at risk for Reye syndrome. This is a rare but very serious disorder. It most often affects the brain and the liver.

    • Don't use NSAID medicines if you are already taking one for another condition (such as arthritis) or if you are taking aspirin (such as for heart disease or after a stroke).

  • Anti-diarrhea medicine should be taken for this condition only if advised by your healthcare provider. Sometimes it can make your condition worse. If you have bloody diarrhea or fever, check with your provider before taking this type of medicine.


  • Water and clear liquids are important so you don't get dehydrated. Drink small amounts at a time. Don't guzzle it down. If you are very dehydrated, sports drinks aren't a good choice. They have too much sugar and not enough electrolytes. In this case, commercially available products called oral rehydration solutions are best.

  • Caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol can make the diarrhea, cramping, and pain worse. Try to stop using these until you are fully recovered.

  • Don't force yourself to eat, especially if you have cramping, vomiting, or diarrhea. Don't eat large amounts at a time, even if you are hungry. It may make you feel worse.

  • If you eat, don't have fatty, greasy, spicy, or fried foods.

  • Don't have any dairy products, as they can make diarrhea worse.

During the first 24 hours (the first full day) follow the diet below:

  • Drinks: Water, clear liquids, soft drinks without caffeine; ginger ale, mineral water (plain or flavored), decaffeinated tea and coffee

  • Soups: Clear broth, consommé, and bouillon

  • Desserts: Plain gelatin, ice pops, and fruit juice bars

During the next 24 hours (the second day) you may add these to the above if you are feeling better:

  • Hot cereal, plain toast, bread, rolls, crackers

  • Plain noodles, rice, mashed potatoes, chicken noodle or rice soup

  • Unsweetened canned fruit such as applesauce and bananas (not pineapple and citrus)

  • Limit fat intake to less than 15 grams per day. Don't eat margarine, butter, oils, mayonnaise, sauces, gravies, fried foods, peanut butter, meat, poultry, and fish.

  • Limit fiber. Don't eat raw or cooked vegetables, fresh fruits (except bananas), and bran cereals.

  • Limit caffeine and chocolate. No spices or seasonings except salt.

During the next 24 hours:

  • Slowly go back to a normal diet, as you feel better and your symptoms ease.

  • If at any time the diarrhea or cramping gets worse, go back to the simpler diet (above) or to clear liquids.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. Call if you aren't getting better in 24 hours or if the diarrhea lasts more than 1 week. This is even more important if you are in a high-risk group, such as:

  • Being an older adult

  • Having a weak immune system (such as from cancer treatment)

  • Having inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease or colitis)

If a stool (diarrhea) sample was taken, you may call in 2 days (or as directed) for the results.

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • More belly pain or constant lower right belly pain

  • Lasting vomiting (can't keep liquids down)

  • Frequent diarrhea (more than 5 times a day)

  • Blood in vomit or stool (black or red color)

  • Eating or drinking less

  • Dark urine, reduced urine output

  • Weakness, dizziness

  • Drowsiness

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your provider

  • New rash

  • Symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Feeling confused

  • Severe drowsiness or trouble waking up

  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

  • Fast heart rate

  • Seizure

  • Stiff neck

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