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Chemotherapy-Induced Diarrhea

Chemotherapy can cause diarrhea when the drug affects the cells lining the intestine. However, there are several ways to control chemotherapy-induced diarrhea, such as drinking plenty of liquids, eating small amounts of food throughout the day, and eating low-fiber foods. If you are undergoing chemotherapy and diarrhea continues for more than 24 hours, or if you have pain and cramping along with the diarrhea, call your healthcare provider.

An Overview of Chemotherapy and Diarrhea

When chemotherapy affects the cells lining the intestine, it can cause diarrhea. Diarrhea is defined as loose, watery stools occurring more often than three times in one day. Diarrhea is not the occasional loose stool or the frequent passing of formed stools.
 
If you have diarrhea that continues for more than 24 hours, or if you have pain and cramping along with the diarrhea, call your healthcare provider. In severe cases, the healthcare provider may prescribe a medicine to help stop diarrhea. If diarrhea persists, you may need intravenous (IV) fluids to replace the water and nutrients you have lost. Often these fluids are given on an outpatient basis and do not require hospitalization. Do not take any over-the-counter medicines for diarrhea without asking your healthcare provider.
 

Controlling Diarrhea During Chemotherapy

Below are some suggestions for controlling chemotherapy-induced diarrhea:
 
  • Drink plenty of fluids. This will help replace the water you have lost through diarrhea. Mild, clear liquids (such as water or ginger ale), clear broth, and sports drinks (such as Gatorade®) are best. If these drinks make you more thirsty or nauseous, try diluting them with water. Drink slowly and make sure the drinks are at room temperature. Let carbonated drinks lose their fizz before you drink them (see Diarrhea Treatment for more information).
     
  • Eat small amounts of food throughout the day instead of eating three large meals.
     
  • Unless your healthcare provider has told you otherwise, eat potassium-rich foods. Diarrhea can cause you to lose this important mineral. Bananas, oranges, potatoes, peaches, and apricots are good sources of potassium.
     
  • Ask your healthcare provider if you should try a clear liquid diet to give your bowels time to rest. A clear liquid diet does not provide all of the nutrients you need, so you should not stay on this diet for more than three to five days.
     
  • Eat low-fiber foods. Some examples of low-fiber foods include white bread, white rice or noodles, creamed cereals, ripe bananas, canned or cooked fruit without the skin, cottage cheese, yogurt, eggs, mashed or baked potatoes without the skin, pureed vegetables, chicken, turkey without the skin, and fish (see Diarrhea Diet for a list of other foods to avoid and which ones to include).
     
  • Avoid high-fiber foods, which can lead to diarrhea and cramping. High-fiber foods can include whole grain breads and cereals, raw vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, popcorn, and fresh and dried fruit.
     
  • Avoid hot or very cold liquids, which can make diarrhea worse.
     
  • Avoid coffee, tea with caffeine, alcohol, and sweets. Also, stay away from fried, greasy, or spicy foods; they are irritating and can cause diarrhea and cramping.
     
  • Avoid milk and milk products (including ice cream) if they make your diarrhea worse.
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