Traveler's Diarrhea: Don't Let It Ruin Your Vacation
Robin considered herself a seasoned traveler. She'd been south of the border before, so when she visited a friend in Mexico City, she knew better than to drink the water. But she let her guard down at a dance club in Acapulco and had a drink with ice. She spent the next seven hours on a bus battling traveler's diarrhea (TD). "The discomfort was excruciating," Robin adds.
Traveler's diarrhea is one the most common illnesses affecting travelers. Travelers who ingest contaminated food or drink may experience a range of symptoms, including watery diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain, that can last for 3-7 days.
Deciding on a Location
Visitors to developing countries, like Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, put themselves at increased risk of TD, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). TD goes hand in hand with poor sanitation and poor refrigeration. When you travel, use your common sense when determining where and what to eat while abroad. For example, five-star hotels that cater to world travelers are generally safer bets than open-air markets. To avoid problems, don't eat at a street corner vendor or a festival.
Having a Prevention Plan
For travelers who do not want to limit their destinations, a healthy dose of awareness can lower their risk of TD. Here are some tips when visiting high-risk locations:
In general, you should avoid these foods:
It is a good idea to see your doctor to get antibiotics and/or anti-diarrheal medications before you go.
Getting Treatment Right Away
What if you do get sick? At the first sign of diarrhea, start with a two- to three-day course of antibiotics if you got them from the doctor. Start taking anti-diarrheal medications as needed for more immediate relief.
Avoid giving anti-diarrheal medicine to young children, though. Young children with diarrhea should see a doctor early on because they are at a higher risk for dehydration than adults. For mild to moderate diarrhea in children, make sure your child is staying hydrated. If diarrhea is severe (10 or more watery stools per day) or the child is urinating less frequently (a sign of dehydration), get medical care right away.
Staying hydrated is an essential part of treatment for adults, as well. You replenish fluid balance better with oral rehydration salts (ORS). They can be purchased before your trip and packed in your toiletry kit or are available in most travel locations. You will have to mix the ORS with a safe water source.
Knowing When to Get Help
Seek immediate medical care for TD in any of the following situations:
In some cases, TD can persist despite antibiotic treatment. Rarely, it can trigger other gastrointestinal problems. See your doctor if symptoms worsen or do not resolve.
The International Society of Travel Medicine
Public Health Agency of Canada
Food and water safety.
Traveler's diarrhea. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us. Updated October 8, 2013. Accessed November 21, 2013.
Traveler's diarrhea. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
Water disinfection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at:
Last reviewed November 2013 by Michael Woods, MD