It can be tempting to ignore digestive discomfort or distress or to assume it’s temporary and muddle through the pain.
Oftentimes, gastrointestinal issues are short-lived and can be treated at home. But if symptoms last several days or weeks or keep coming back, don’t tough it out on your own.
“Don’t sit on symptoms,” says Ruth Mokeba, MD, a UNC Rex Health gastroenterologist. “Call your primary care doctor sooner rather than later whenever there’s a chance something more serious could be going on.”
With her caution in mind, there are some steps you can take at home if your symptoms are mild or at least tolerable. Whatever your symptoms, you should start to see improvement within 24 hours. Over-the-counter medications may help you feel better, but Dr. Mokeba recommends using them only sparingly, as they can mask signs of more serious problems.
At-Home Care for Heartburn
Despite the name, heartburn has nothing to do with your heart. It’s actually indigestion causing acid reflux, which feels like burning behind your breastbone or in your throat. Certain foods may trigger heartburn, including onions, citrus fruits and juices, high-fat foods, tomato-based products, chocolate, peppermint and alcohol. When and how much you eat also has an impact. For example, eating a large meal, especially close to bedtime, can trigger heartburn. Certain exercises and medications may also cause heartburn.
For occasional and short-term heartburn, over-the-counter antacids may help, Dr. Mokeba says. If you get heartburn frequently, talk to your doctor. It could be gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and your doctor will help you find a regimen to help relieve the discomfort and pain.
Heartburn that is severe or doesn’t go away may be a symptom of other conditions as well, including heart or gall bladder problems. See your doctor if your heartburn persists more than a day or isn’t relieved by antacids.
At-Home Care for Nausea
Nausea is often a precursor to vomiting. Occasional vomiting is not usually cause for concern, but vomiting that lasts more than 24 hours or is accompanied by abdominal swelling or severe pain should prompt medical attention, Dr. Mokeba says.
If you are nauseous with or without vomiting, try ginger—ginger ale, ginger mints and ginger tea are all good options (check ingredient labels to make sure there’s actually ginger in the products). Warm herbal tea or warm water often are soothing to an upset stomach. Electrolyte-rich sports beverages, popsicles and ice chips can help you stay hydrated, which is key to feeling better and helping your body heal.
You could have a stomach bug, or gastroenteritis, which usually is not very contagious if you follow proper hygiene such as hand-washing. If others in your home or friends you’ve shared a meal with are nauseated too, it could be a foodborne illness, often called food poisoning. When certain bacteria grow in foods that are not kept cold, they form toxins in the food that are resistant to heat, so cooking or microwaving your leftovers won’t prevent gastroenteritis.
“I remember one time when I was working in the ER, a woman came in with severe cramping and diarrhea,” Dr. Mokeba says. “Before we knew it, the whole church congregation was there.” The culprit was mayonnaise-based egg salad served at a church function. Other foods that shouldn’t sit out too long include seafood and creamy salad dressings.
“Just be careful” with food preparation and storage, she says.
At-Home Care for Diarrhea
Diarrhea, or loose stools, may accompany nausea or be a separate symptom. Diarrhea can cause abdominal cramps that are sometimes severe. If cramping becomes too much to tolerate, Dr. Mokeba says, call your doctor or go to a hospital emergency room or urgent care clinic. As with nausea and vomiting, hydration is extremely important if you’re experiencing diarrhea.
“You need to take in as much as you’re putting out,” she says.
If you can, try to eat a little to maintain your strength. Avoid high-fiber foods. Dr. Mokeba recommends eating bananas, which are filling and nutritious. You may want to try dry toast or rice.
If you have bloody or black, tarry stools, talk to your doctor to check for bleeding in the digestive tract. Ulcers, hemorrhoids and other conditions can cause bleeding and should be diagnosed and treated by your doctor.
An important note: Sometimes things you consume can cause dark or red stool. Bismuth subsalicylate medicines (Pepto Bismol) can turn your stools black (and your tongue, too). Iron supplements or foods rich in iron also can turn stool black. Red stools might be caused by red or orange gelatin or red velvet cake. If you are unsure, talk to your doctor.
At-Home Care for Constipation
If your bowels won’t move or your stool is hard to pass, you’re probably constipated. Many factors can contribute to constipation: being less active than usual, eating few high-fiber foods, consuming more dairy and taking certain medications, including some for pain, allergies and high blood pressure.
Dr. Mokeba recommends drinking more water and eating fruits like pears, apples and prunes or prune juice. If you take an over-the-counter medication, limit it to one or two doses to make sure you aren’t masking symptoms of something more serious, such as an intestinal obstruction. If your symptoms do not resolve within a day or two, call your doctor.
If you have gastrointestinal distress that doesn’t improve within 24 hours or if symptoms are severe, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. If you need a doctor, find one near you.