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.
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.
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 better – Ciprofloxacin, 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.