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Treating the Runs in a Survival Situation

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: November 24, 2020
Treating the Runs in a Survival Situation

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Twice during the past month, I have suffered from a common malady that polite company calls “the runs”.  More commonly known as diarrhea, this ailment is often accompanied by cramping, gas, and pain.  Most of the time, it passes within an hour or two.  There are times, however, when diarrhea will last for hours or even days.  That is not good.

What happens when you get a severe case of diarrhea?

Treating the Runs in a Survival Situation | Backdoor Survival

One of the most dangerous outcomes is dehydration.  Dehydration can cause headache, fatigue, sallow and dry skin, constipation and other woes.  It can compromise your immune system and make you weak or even faint.  In the most dire cases, diarrhea can cause vomiting, fever, and bloody stools.  All of this is in addition to cramps and bloating.

In a worst-case scenario, diarrhea and the resulting symptoms can cause death, especially in children.

What Causes Diarrhea?

Often times, diarrhea is caused by foods that are not wholesome.  Such food may contain bacteria such as e-coli or parasites.  Contaminated water may also harbor bacteria and parasites.  Other causes are certain medicines or antibiotics, or disease and disorders such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and lactose-intolerance among others. 

Anyone who travels will know about Norovirus which often runs rampant on cruise ships or in hotels.  Norovirus is awful and is accompanied by severe vomiting.  Sometimes, the cause can be as simple as eating foods that, for one reason or another, disagree with your digestive system. In my case, it can be something as innocuous as a huge bowl of buttered popcorn.  Go figure.

And then there are article sweeteners, artificial “fats”, and other manufactured food additives.  For many, these substances can be the root cause of off and on again diarrhea that never really goes away.

Regardless of the cause, if diarrhea lasts much longer than a few hours, dehydration becomes a problem, especially when vomiting is also present.  It is lasts longer than a day, and especially if it happens to a child or elderly person, medical attention is warranted.

This leads to the following question:  What happens when there is an attack of the runs and medical help is not available?  What can we do to treat diarrhea in a survival situation?

For an answer, I went to my go-to person on survival medicine, contributing author, Dr. Joe Alton.  As he so aptly points out, sanitation and hygiene will suffer following a disruptive event making all of us susceptible to a case o diarrhea.  If that happens, what can we do to treat it?

How to Treat Diarrhea in Survival

With worsening sanitation and hygiene, there will likely be an increase in infectious disease, many of which cause diarrhea. Diarrhea is defined as frequent loose bowel movements.

If a person has 3 liquid stools in a row, it’s important to watch for signs of dehydration. Diarrhea lasting less than three weeks is usually related to an infection, and is known as Acute Diarrhea. Chronic Diarrhea lasts longer than three weeks and is more likely related to disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Diarrhea, generally, is a common ailment which should go away on its own with attention to rehydration methods. In some circumstances, however, diarrhea can be a life-threatening condition. Over 80,000 soldiers perished in the Civil War, not from bullets, but from dehydration related to diarrheal disease.

Common causes of diarrhea are:

  • Bacterial infections caused by food or water contamination, such as Salmonella, Shingella, E. Coli and Campylobacter
  • Viral Infections like rotavirus, cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex virus, Norwalk virus
  • Food Intolerances or Allergies, such as lactose intolerance and seafood allergies
  • Medication Reactions, like antibiotics, laxatives
  • Parasites, such as Cryptosporidium, Entamoeba and Giardia
  • Chronic Intestinal diseases
  • Overeating heavy greasy foods or unripe fruit

Danger Symptoms of Diarrhea

In most cases, diarrhea will resolve itself simply by staying hydrated and staying away from solid food for 6-12 hours. However, there are some symptoms that may present in association with diarrhea that can be a sign of something more serious. Those symptoms are:

  • Fever equal to or greater than 101 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Bloody, mucus, or frothy yellow stool
  • Black or grey-white stool
  • Severe vomiting
  • Major abdominal distension and pain
  • Moderate to severe dehydration, which is not getting better
  • Diarrhea lasting more than 3 days in adults
  • Diarrhea lasting more than 1 day in children and the sick or elderly
  • In children also, abdominal pain causing crying for over 2 hours

All of the above may be signs of serious infection, intestinal bleeding, liver dysfunction, or even surgical conditions such as appendicitis. As well, all of the above will increase the likelihood that the person affected won’t be able to regulate their fluid balance.

The end result (and most common cause of death) of untreated diarrheal illness is dehydration. 75% of the body’s weight is made up of water; the average adult requires 2 to 3 liters of fluid per day to remain in balance. Children become dehydrated more easily than adults: 4 million children die every year in underdeveloped countries from dehydration due to diarrhea and other causes.

Rehydration Treatment for Diarrhea

Fluid replacement is the treatment for dehydration caused by diarrhea. Oral rehydration is the first line of treatment, but if this fails, intravenous fluid (IV) may be needed, which requires special skills. Always start by giving your patient small amounts of clear fluids.

For pediatric diarrhea, the problem can become life threatening much faster. Be diligent in fluid replacement and continue breast-feeding if the infant is still nursing. Do not use watered down fruit juices or Gatorade products for these infants or children. The best fluid replacement according to one study called Evaluation of Infant Rehydration Solutions, by James F. Wesley, states, “The most appropriate product would have an acceptable taste and a hypotonic osmolality. That would be unflavored Gerber Liquilyte.

Oral rehydration packets are commercially available, but you can produce your own homemade rehydration fluid very easily.

For adults use 1 liter of water, and for children use 2 liters of water, then add:

  • 6-8 teaspoons of sugar (sucrose)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt (sodium chloride)
  • ½ teaspoon of salt substitute (potassium chloride)
  • A pinch of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)

As the patient shows an ability to tolerate these fluids, advancement of the diet is undertaken. It is wise to avoid milk, as some are lactose intolerant.

A popular strategy for rapid recovery from dehydration is the BRAT diet, used commonly in children. This diet consists of:

  • Bananas
  • Rice
  • Applesauce
  • Plain Toast (or crackers)

Once the patient keeps down thin cereals, you can add more solid foods. Additional energy needs may be met with these foods, as the patient gets better:

  • Brown Rice water
  • Chicken or Beef broth, with rice or noodles
  • Oatmeal or grits
  • Boiled eggs
  • Boiled potatoes
  • Baked Chicken
  • Vegetable broth with very soft carrots, potatoes
  • Jell-O
  • Organic Yogurt for probiotics after diarrhea stops

The advantage of this strategy is that these food items are very bland, easily tolerated, and slow down intestinal motility (the rapidity of movement of food/fluids through your system). This will slow down diarrhea and, as a result, water loss. In a survival setting, you will probably not have many bananas, but hopefully you have stored rice and/or applesauce, and have the ability to bake bread.

Various natural substances have been reported to be helpful in these situations. Herbal remedies that are thought to help with diarrhea include:

  • Ginger (fresh is best)
  • Meadowsweet (mild and highly recommended)
  • Blackberry leaf
  • Raspberry leaf
  • Chamomile
  • Peppermint
  • Goldenseal
  • Sunflower leaf
  • Garden Sage
  • Yarrow
  • Mullein
  • Nettle
  • Slippery Elm
  • Oak Bark (very strong, last resort)

Make a tea (infusion) by pouring 1 cup of boiling water over 1-2 teaspoon of dried herbs and let them brew with a lid for 10-15 minutes, strain, then drink a cup every 2-3 hours, or until the patient feels better. A small amount of raw honey may be added for taste and a pinch of cinnamon.

Half a clove of fresh crushed garlic and 1 teaspoon of raw, unprocessed honey 3-4 times a day is thought to exert an antibacterial effect in some cases of diarrhea. A small amount of nutmeg may decrease the number of loose bowel movements.

Of course, there are medicines that can help and you should stockpile these in quantity. Pepto-Bismol and Imodium (Loperamide) will help stop diarrhea. They don’t cure infections, but they will slow down the number of bowel movements and conserve water. These are over the counter medicines, and are easy to obtain. In tablet form, these medicines will last for years if properly stored. Don’t use medication as a first option; some causes of diarrhea are made worse with these medications.

There are some theories about creating homemade IV solutions.

This is problematic and all the obstacles cannot be overcome. How do you make a 100% sterile solution that is exactly normal saline, get it into a sterile bag/delivery system and keep it 100% sterile in the process?

You’ll  need a tubing system, which must also be sterile, to an I.V. catheter, which must be sterile until used. A standard IV bag is created in a specialized environment and remains sterile until punctured by a sterile (hopefully) tubing. Any exposure to the air will eliminate the sterility, which means that it is possible that you might be infusing bacteria directly into your patient’s bloodstream, a very bad idea.

As a last resort to treat dehydration from diarrhea (especially if there is also a high fever), you can try antibiotics or anti-parasitic drugs. Ciprofloxacin, Doxycycline and Metronidazole are good choices, twice a day, until the stools are less watery. Some of these are available in veterinary form without a prescription. These medicines should be used only as a last resort, as the main side effect is usually…diarrhea!

By Joe Alton, MD, of
Co-Author, The Survival Medicine Handbook

The Final Word

Having plenty of tea, honey, salt, sugar, herbs, and baking soda in the survival pantry will be your first line of defense when when diarrhea strikes.  Herbs such as ginger, chamomile, and meadowsweet are especially useful and can be easily cultivated yourself.   To be honest, these and other natural solutions are always the remedy of choice in my household.

I am not a big fan of Pepto-Bismol but I do stock both Imodium tablets and liquid in my emergency kit.  The liquid, in small amounts, has also been prescribed by my veterinarian for Tucker the Dog, so I feel that having some on board serves a dual purpose in resolving both human and canine woes.

Finally, I use an essential oil blend called “Digest” when my own gastro-intestinal system is acting up.  I use it topically (never internally) by combining a few drops with a carrier oil such as Simple Salve (which I make myself), or coconut oil.

Having diarrhea is never a picnic.  If a severe attack occurs following a major disaster or disruptive event, the resulting dehydration can be severe enough to become life threatening.  Knowing what to do and when to do it will go a long way to ensuring that you will make it through, no matter what.

And isn’t that what prepping is all about?

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to email updates.  When you do, you will receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-Book, The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide.

You can also vote for Backdoor Survival daily at Top Prepper Websites!

Spotlight Item:  The Survival Medicine Handbook: A Guide for When Help is Not on the Way, by Joe and Amy Alton, is a guide for those who want to be medically prepared for any disaster where help is NOT on the way.

It is written from the non-medical professional and assumes that no hospital or doctor is available in the aftermath of a catastrophic event.  It covers skills such as performing a physical exam, transporting the injured patient, and even how to suture a wound. This medical reference belongs in every survival library.

Below you will find the items related to today’s article as well as items referenced in Fast Track Tip #10: 8 Uncommon First Aid Items.

Digest Blend Essential Oil:  Over and over again, this particular blend from Spark Naturals has worked its magic to review indigestion, acid reflux, stomach cramps and even diarrhea.  I used it topically, mixed with some carrier oil (Simple Salve that I make myself) or coconut oil.  Even Shelly swears by it.  This stuff is magic!

Note:  The individual oils in this proprietary blend are of Lemon, Spearmint, Myrrh, Fennel and Ginger.  As always, As always, enjoy a 10% discount at Spark Naturals with code BACKDOORSURVIVAL.

Imodium Multi-Symptom Relief:  Although I reach for natural remedies first, Imodium is a second line of defense when a case of the runs strikes. I prefer the tablets but also keep some of liquid Imodium on hand as well.

New-Skin Liquid Bandage, First Aid Liquid Antiseptic:  I have been using New Skin for years.  It is an antiseptic, invisible, flexible, and waterproof.  It works.

Super Glue  – The Original: This is the original Super Glue brand.  This works a lot like the liquid bandage above in that you apply it to the wound and when it’s dry, it will hold the cut together. Also check out Krazy Glue or Gorilla Brand Super Glue.

First Voice Self-Adherent Stretch Bandage (Pack of 10):  I first learned about self-adhesive bandages when my dog came home from the vet such a bandage wrapped around his leg.  A light went off telling me I needed to add some to my first-aid kit.  And so I did.  This is a fantastic price and rivals the price at the farm supply.

Quikclot Sport Brand Advanced Clotting Sponge: A must for any first aid or emergency kit, Quikclot Sport stops moderate to severe bleeding until further medical help is available.

Israeli Battle Dressing, 6-inch Compression Bandage: This is another inexpensive, yet critical item. Combat medics, trauma doctors, and emergency responders all recommend this Israeli Battle Dressing (IBD) for the treatment of gunshot wounds, puncture wounds, deep cuts, and other traumatic hemorrhagic injuries.

Prepper’s Natural Medicine: Life-Saving Herbs, Essential Oils and Natural Remedies for When There is No Doctor:  This is a fantastic book from fellow blogger, Cat Ellis.  In it you will learn that natural remedies are not voodoo but rather, natures way of healing without the use of toxic chemicals and additives.  Highly recommended.

Spark Naturals Essential Oils: I use essential oils from Spark Naturals exclusively.  They are high quality yet reasonably priced.  In addition, there are no membership fees and a distributor relationship is not necessary to get best pricing. Interested in checking them out? Backdoor Survival readers get a 10% discount by using coupon code BACKDOORSURVIVAL at checkout!

Help support Backdoor Survival. Purchases earn a small commission and for that I thank you!


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18 Responses to “Treating the Runs in a Survival Situation”

  1. When kids were small I kept popcicles (or made them immediately) to prevent dehydration. Of course this would assume you still have electricity. It’s hard to “force” enough liquid into a toddler but I’ve never seen one turn down popcicles! We also used blackberry leaves on the farm to treat scours (the runs) in calves, goats & sheep.

  2. One thing you left out: stress can also cause diarrhea. So maybe you didn’t eat something bad, it’s the situation. In that case, try meditating first, or whatever you do to calm down and relax. Then if that doesn’t work, try the remedies. I have IBS, so I have learned the hard way what works and what doesn’t and most of the time stress is what’s getting me.

  3. Was doing some research and came across this, imho, it deserves some wider follow-up:

    “Don’t wait for grandma to come down with diarrhea, it will likely be too late. Go down to the nursing home and place some Saccaromyces boulardii Baker’s yeast, obtained at most health food stores, in her foods or drinks. Mount a defense before the onset of intestinal cramping and diarrhea begin.” …


    The colloidal silver idea seems good, too. Anybody have any experience with how well that works?

  4. I have colloidal silver on hand for infections. It is know that if you ingest silver, you should take a probiotic afterwards. The silver will kill the bad germs and the good germs in your stomach and intestines, so the need for the probiotics to replace the good bacteria. I’m thinking that silver would help kill whatever is causing the diarrhea.

  5. Recommending Cipro, again? Yeesh.

    Antibiotic Alert: The Drug the Doctor Ordered Could Cause Deadly Side Effects


    Warning: Fluoroquinolone Antibiotics May Cause Permanent Nerve Damage


    • I’m not a fan of the regular use of prescription antibiotics either, but Gaye clearly states the suggestion as “a last resort to treat dehydration from diarrhea”…right after the numerous (and helpful) mentions of natural or OTC treatments.
      The associated dangers of prescription drug use are no secret, but they certainly have their place…most notably would be the aforementioned “deadly side effect” of chronic diarrhea. Call me crazy, but I would happily reach for a dreaded bottle of Cipro after defecating myself to the brink of death.

    • Calling Cipro ‘a good choice’ kind of negates the, ‘as a last resort’ suggestion. Especially, by saying, “the main side effect is usually…diarrhea!” without mentioning the other possible long term side effects.

      I would call you crazy if you decided to swallow a drug like Cipro when there are other alternatives. Considering what the possible side effects are, a person might even be crazy to take Cipro when that’s all there is. There’s no guarantee a person wouldn’t make it through a bout of diarrhea without taking Cipro and there’s no guarantee Cipro even works.

      You’re also crazy (or at least misled) to say, “The associated dangers of prescription drug use are no secret, but they certainly have their place…”

      The dangers Are a big secret. It’s doubtful they ever, “have their place”.

      The Starfield Revelations

      “the medical drugs the FDA certifies as safe are killing 106,000 Americans per year.

      Physicians are trained to pay exclusive homage to peer-reviewed published drug studies. These doctors unfailingly ignore the fact that, if medical drugs are killing a million Americans per decade, the studies on which those drugs are based must be fraudulent. In other words, the whole literature is suspect, unreliable, and impenetrable.”


      See also: How medical crimminals are faking medical science every day

      ““It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.”

      Marcia Angell, MD, “Drug Companies and Doctors: A story of corruption.” NY Review of Books, Jan. 15, 2009.”


  6. When kids were small I kept popcicles (or made them immediately) to prevent dehydration. Of course this would assume you still have electricity. It’s hard to “force” enough liquid into a toddler but I’ve never seen one turn down popcicles! We also used blackberry leaves on the farm to treat scours (the runs) in calves, goats & sheep.

  7. Good article, but you MISSED entirely the BEST natural cure for non-viral diarrhea – BLACKBERRIES!!!
    As the father of 6, we were constantly inundated with ear infections and the raging diarrhea the poor little ones would get. Fresh blackberries work best, but a can of blackberries is just as good. Infants can handle the juice watered down a bit in a bottle….adults will have to consume a half can to evince the same effect. It is MUCH tastier, easier on your system, and MUCH less traumatizing than meds or consuming bentonite (pepto), which USED TO BE my goto cure when travelling.
    TRUST ME – good, natural advice from an old survivalist, father and Biomedical Engineer. The only time it doesn’t work is if you need hospitalization for a more extreme condition, of which the diarrhea is merely a symptom.

  8. Truly important life-saving topic. I had wanted to say something about how my preps got me through a couple recent episodes. I was unable to stand up due to severe dizziness and weakness. So I crawled to the kitchen and dragged salt and sugar off the low shelves. And a banana for potassium.

    I used water from a storage cabinet next to the bed and made an electrolyte solution. It was really hard to get this in me and I could only nibble at the banana but I knew from a previous visit to the emergency room how important it is. Next time I will add the other two ingredients mentioned.

  9. Important topic, thanks for bringing it up and for a full discussion.
    I stock both anti-diareahals and laxatives for SHTF and just occasional “regular” trouble, so I can medicate for either the runs or being blocked up too long since either can be dangerous when there is no access to doctors and hospitals.
    And I have printed the recipe for the oral rehydration solution and keep it next to all the ingredients, which are kept together on a single shelf for emergencies. I know my wife thinks I overdo it, but I have enough to make over a thousand liters of ORS in case we need to help neighbors too.
    For folks who can’t find a true potassium based salt replacement, try looking at the Morton’s Lite Salt. It’s half regular salt (sodium chloride) and half potassium chloride (salt replacement.)

  10. My husband was in the hospital about 20 years ago with salmonella poisoning. First the doctors thought he had a bone infection because of the body, head pain AND diarrhea. He ended up in the hospital with salmonella typhoid fever. He was in the hospital for ten days. Diarrhea can be a scary situation because people get dehydrated so quickly. Great article for all of us Gaye, thank you.

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