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What Is Oral Rehydration Therapy?

When extreme diarrhea occurs, treatment may include IV drips.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2014
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When extreme diarrhea occurs, it would make sense to give fluids to prevent life-threatening dehydration. In Western medicine, treatment may utilize intravenous (IV) drips to quickly accomplish this, especially for children. Yet access to IVs and the fluids needed aren’t equal in other parts of the world, and severe diarrhea or stomach flu has been a major source of death for many young children who lack this access. To this end, physicians there and elsewhere have drawn on the age old principal of giving liquids by mouth to rebalance electrolytes and reduce risk, calling this oral rehydration therapy or ORT.

The most important part of oral rehydration therapy is that it provides the ill person with a reasonable balance of salts and sugar, so that the body can retain some fluids. Without this, the body may easily end up with too great of a build up of one or the other. Water alone doesn’t provide these things and may actually further deplete electrolytes. Too much sugar creates problems because it can draw water from the body and exacerbate diarrhea.

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One way to address the need for balance is to use oral rehydration therapy solution packets. These can be added to a prescribed amount of clean water and administered at a rate of about five milliliters or one teaspoon every five minutes, until diarrhea ceases. It is also possible to make ORT solution at home with a variety of liquids like rice water, broth or breastmilk and appropriate levels of table salt and sugar. People should avoid using any high sugar content liquids such as sodas, fruit juice and even some sports drinks. There are some pre-mixed ORT solutions available in much of the western world, and pharmacies or doctors can advise on which ones to get, if people want convenience.

Although conventional wisdom suggests withholding liquids during vomiting, the opposite is recommending for oral rehydration therapy, especially if vomiting only occurs once or twice. People are advised by organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) to continue rehydrating at the rate recommended. If vomiting fully prevents this, then treatment with a physician may be needed. Though ORT works much of the time, it does not work in every circumstance.

On the other hand, the effectiveness of oral rehydration therapy, given its simplicity, cannot be underestimated. In countries where access to doctors is minimal, rates at which especially children succumb to conditions involving diarrhea are astounding and tragic. Teaching ORT and having a means by which it can be easily administered has saved a dramatic number of lives that is estimated to be in the millions.

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