When your body discharges loose and watery stool at least three times in a single day, you have diarrhea. It can last for two to three days, but severe cases can last for weeks and cause severe dehydration and even death.
In fact, in the days of the Wild West, diarrhea brought by cholera and dysentery was one of the main causes of death in the trail, killing thousands along the way. From 1849 – 1855, during the epidemic years of cholera, it’s estimated that the disease killed up to three percent of all westward travelers. With improvements in medicine, sanitation and personal hygiene, cases of diarrhea have decreased in developed countries, but it’s still common enough to affect an estimated 1.75 billion to 5 billion people each year.
Aside from cuts, dehydration. and blisters, diarrhea could be the most frequent health risk you’ll experience during a survival scenario. It’s annoying at best, but it can quickly turn your situation from bad to worse if you’re not careful.
Know your enemy
Diarrhea is a symptom of problems within your digestive system, usually indicating an infection. It can also be due to digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome or occur as a side effect of certain medications like antibiotics.
When your digestive tract is infected, getting the runs is your body’s way of flushing out the contaminants. The most common causes include viruses, bacteria and parasites. Transmission of these microorganisms into your body is usually caused by contaminated food or water, but it can also be contagious and passed to and from another person.
Some of the most common causes include:
- E. coli, a bacterial infection usually caused by consuming undercooked meat or contaminated food or water.
- Giardia, a parasitic infection from drinking water containing the parasite Giardia Lamblia.
- Rotavirus, a viral infection common in infants and children and which is highly contagious.
- Salmonella, a bacterial infection caused by consuming food or water contaminated by bacteria
- Shigella, a contagious bacterial infection which causes bloody stools.
If you or a member of your group experiences runny stool at least three times within the day, you need to go back to the last 48 hours, check where you could have gone wrong, and isolate the cause.
- Did you eat anything that could have caused the condition?
- Did you take any medication like an antibiotic during the last 48 hours?
- Did you drink from a source that could be contaminated?
- Check your food supplies for bad food and your food and water containers for possible contaminants like mold. Clean or discard contaminated containers. Contaminated food will have to be properly discarded immediately.
During mild cases of diarrhea, the affected person may feel fine other than being slightly annoyed from having to go more often than usual. However, other ailments from dehydration like dizziness, lack of energy and headaches can accompany diarrhea.
If the person gets a fever, nausea, severe abdominal pain and there is blood present in the stool, quarantine the affected person and, when possible, seek medical help immediately.
Have a stomach break
A change in diet is one of the first treatments for diarrhea. By letting your digestive system take a break, you can ease the symptoms and make the trips to the john less frequent.
Under normal circumstances, a person experiencing loose bowels will be given a B.R.A.T. diet—Bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. This makes your stomach relax and decrease the amount of stool it produces. This diet also contains the type of fiber (pectin) needed to bulk up stool. If you don’t have access to these, you can also consider the following:
- Simple bread
- Plain mashed potatoes
- Clear vegetable soup
During this time, avoid food that’s spicy or high in fat. Dairy is also off-limits, but breastfeeding infants should continue to be breastfed.
Another thing to watch out for when experiencing diarrhea is dehydration, BUT you should also remember to drink fluids sensibly. It won’t be as simple as gulping a whole bottle of water after every movement—this can be your express ticket to making things worse.
Drink fluids in smaller quantities, but more frequently. This helps your stomach take in as much of the liquid without adding to the discomfort. Instead of plain water, drink electrolyte replacement fluids like Pedialyte to avoid electrolyte depletion. You can store electrolyte replacement fluids or tablets, or learn to make your own for situations like these.
Blackberry root made into tea has been used to provide relief from diarrhea. Although there’s not much scientific evidence to back it up, diluted apple cider vinegar is also used to relieve diarrhea, with one tablespoon for every glass of water.
Loperamide, a popular medication for people experiencing diarrhea, should be taken as a last resort. Its main purpose is to lessen the frequency of diarrhea—since it’s your body’s natural reaction to flushing out unwanted material from your body, taking loperamide will keep them inside you, possibly prolonging your sickness.
This completes part 1 of our series on dealing with the runs. In part 2, we’ll discuss ways to prevent diarrhea, along with other preparations you can make to keep yourself from catching a stomach bug.