Medicinal plants have been used as traditional treatments for numerous human diseases for thousands of years. Diarrhoeal diseases continue to be a major cause of morbidity and mortality throughout the world and there is renewed interest in the discovery of novel compounds that can be used to fight these diseases. Numerous studies have validated the traditional use of antidiarrhoeal medicinal plants by investigating the biological activity of extracts of such plants, which have antispasmodic effects, delay intestinal transit, suppress gut motility, stimulate water adsorption or reduce electrolyte secretion. Of the numerous phytochemicals (such as alkaloids, tannins, flavonoids and terpenes) present in active extracts, tannins and flavonoids are thought to be responsible for antidiarrhoeal activity by increasing colonic water and electrolyte reabsorption. Others act by inhibiting intestinal motility. As some of the active ingredients are potentially toxic, there is a need to evaluate the safety of plant preparations. A few clinical trials have evaluated the safety and tolerability of traditional and herbal medicine preparations used to treat diarrhoea and generally indicate that minimal side effects are observed. However, with the increased popularity of plant-derived and herbal medicines in Western society, the benefits and potential dangers of these medicines must be considered. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.