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How to Prevent and Treat Traveler’s Diarrhea

traveler's diarrhea prevention and treatment
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Traveler’s diarrhea is the universal affliction. It affects nearly everyone traveling in developing world areas. There are steps you can take to prevent it, but don’t be surprised if you come down with a case of the runs despite efforts to eat and drink carefully.

Thankfully, most cases of traveler’s diarrhea are short-lived and they often do not require exceptional treatment.

Prevention

Wash your hands – Especially before and after eating a meal. Alternatively, use an alcohol based hand sanitizer or our personal favorite: Germ-X Antibacterial Hand Sanitizing Wipes.

Drink bottled or treated water – Research your destination before traveling and find out if you can drink the tap water. Here is a great, straightforward site for doing so Can I Drink the Water? For information about how to treat and purify water, check out this article.

Avoid ice in your drink – Unless it is ice made with treated or purified water.

Eat fruits and vegetables that are peeled, cooked, or washed in potable water – Try to avoid fruits and vegetables unless they meet this criteria.

Eat food that is well cooked and served hot – Avoid food that is lukewarm or food that has obviously been sitting out for an extended period of time. Food poisoning is a big culprit of traveler’s diarrhea.

Eat at popular restaurants/vendors – If there are a lot of people eating somewhere, chances are the food is both hygienic and delicious. We discussed this in our article titled 5 Ways to Eat Healthy on the Road.

Take probiotics – The science is still out on probiotic use for preventing traveler’s diarrhea, but there is strong anecdotal evidence and if anything, it will help your gut stay balanced. See our article on probiotics for recommended products.

Treatment

Treating traveler’s diarrhea depends on the symptoms you are having. If you are experiencing diarrhea that is accompanied by other symptoms like a fever or blood in your stool, you should get yourself to a clinic as soon as possible (you could have something more severe like amoebic dysentery or giardiasis). If you are experiencing frequent diarrhea that is not entirely debilitating, take the following course of action.

Rehydrate – Diarrhea expels fluids and electrolytes. To rehydrate, use oral rehydration salts. They can be picked up at almost any pharmacy. If you don’t have them/can’t find them, try a sports drink like gatorade. If that’s not available, you can always take a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt and add it to a glass of water.

Eat BRAT foods – Bananas, rice, apple sauce and toast are great foods because they will not irritate your stomach and they can aid in fluid retention. Even with these bland foods, however, eat in moderation.

Rest – The best thing you can do is to rehydrate and rest, visiting the bathroom as often as you need to. Clear your schedule and postpone that 12 hour bus trip!

Try to avoid drugs like Imodium – Imodium (Loperamide) treats symptoms, not the actual cause of the diarrhea. It will cause you to go to the bathroom less, but this simply means that the offending bacteria is staying in your GI tract longer. While there are some studies that suggest taking Imodium will not prolong traveler’s diarrhea, there is no reason to take it unless you have to (for example, you are preparing to go on a long bus journey). Update: this article which includes quotations from a medical professional, indicates that Imodium may not actually be harmful at all. It is a good read overall and includes some important information that you may want to consider.

Take an antibiotic if it does not get betterCiprofloxacin, commonly known as cipro, is a highly effective antibiotic in the treatment of bacterial infections. It should only be used, however, if the diarrhea does not go away after several days. Overuse of cipro has caused some bacterial strains to become resistant to the drug.

If you are visiting a developing world country, you should visit a travel health clinic before you go. Traveler’s diarrhea is something you will discuss with your doctor and you will likely be given a prescription for cipro. A doctor at a travel health clinic will also give you information specific to your destination. For US residents, you can use the CDC website to locate a travel health clinic. You can also ask your general practitioner for a recommendation.

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{ 13 comments… add one }

  • Matt August 5, 2011, 12:30 pm

    Avoid using any local ice Too

    • phil August 19, 2011, 10:29 pm

      Good call. Just added a bullet point specifically for it.

  • Katrina February 6, 2012, 10:09 am

    Unfun subject, but good info. Thanks for all the insight. 🙂

    • phil February 6, 2012, 4:54 pm

      You’re welcome, Katrina 🙂

  • Ben February 6, 2012, 11:43 am

    Good advice – particularly on Immodium! It’s good for something like a bus or boat ride, yes, but otherwise try to avoid it.

  • Michael February 6, 2012, 1:11 pm

    This is one illness that a hiker can not afford to have, particularly if he or she is on a long several-day hiking trip. This is a very good piece that I think I will bookmark. When we go even to the US, we arm ourselves with anti diarrhea medication because we wouldn’t know what we’d get in the pharmacies over there.

    • phil February 6, 2012, 5:04 pm

      Michael, that’s a good idea, especially because some medications like cipro will require a prescription and you won’t be able to buy it over-the-counter.

  • Will Hawkins February 23, 2012, 10:04 am

    Good advice.

    I also think you need to be mentally alert at all times when you eat or drink when in foreign climes. My brother and I let our concentration slip once when very tired while in an Algerian roadside cafe. We suffered badly from drinking the water offered to us on the table and kicked ourselves for being dropping our guard!

  • Mary @ Green Global Travel April 30, 2012, 2:34 pm

    Unfortunately, Bret experienced a touch of diarrhea with his heat exhausting in the Peruvian Amazon. Fortunately, another traveler was carrying electrolyte tablets which helped get him back on his feet the next day.

  • Natalie Lily November 10, 2015, 10:05 pm

    I have had diarrhia for over a year,and have not really find cure, i have try all medication is not working out for me but it was the only the herbal of dr.abegbu i took that cure me totally i am free now from diarrhia if you need his help you can reach him through his email dr.abegbuhealer@gmail.com

  • Kalua June 30, 2016, 5:02 pm

    I’m in Cabo San Lucas at a luxury hotel right this moment suffering from traveler’s diarreah and extreme cramping. This site helped although I already took Iomodium, Pepto Bismal and Gas X. I already have gastro problems but I broke the rules and ate sushi, drank a little tap water. Really suffering and in pain. The worst is having the cramps and bloat and only passing water.

  • Sanjose Mike December 2, 2016, 9:03 pm

    Believe it or not, some travelers still brush their teeth with tap water in their hotel! They might be staying in a hotel where the rooms cost 350/night and “believe” the hotel people who “say” the water in the rooms is fine.

    Well, it’s not. We always use a filtering system we purchased from REI REI has a number of water filtering devices. We use a combination of systems. One we have uses a cartridge to filter and treat the water. The other one is the Steripen.

    The Steripen is very effective, but you need back-up in case the bulb breaks or the battery fails. We first filter our water in our own 1.5 liter plastic bag for brushing our teeth…and we also treat THAT water with the Steripen after.

    We rinse our toothbrushes in purified water of course, and we NEVER accidentally swallow water when we shower.

    We are going to Peru. Peru may be no “worse” than other 3rd world countries, but I’ve heard that it actually is…when it comes to travelers diarrhea.

    sanjosemike

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