What You Need to Know Before You Travel
Every year, millions of international travellers suffer from traveler’s diarrhea. With Christmas right around the corner, we wanted to take this opportunity to teach you about traveler’s diarrhea, so you spend your vacation on the beach, not the washroom. High-risk destinations for travelers’ diarrhea include many parts of Central and South America, Mexico, Africa, the Middle East and most of Asia. Your chances of contracting traveler’s diarrhea are mainly determined by your destination. However, some groups of people are at greater risk of developing the condition, especially those with weakened immune systems.
Traveler’s diarrhea is a disorder of the digestive tract that can cause abdominal cramps, vomiting, fever and loose to watery stools. It is caused by consumption of contaminated water or food. While this condition can be very unpleasant, it is very rarely severe.
When travelling, if your destination’s health practices or climate differ from what you are used to, the risk of developing travelers’ diarrhea is increased. In order to reduce the risk of getting traveler’s diarrhea, you need to be diligent about the food and drink you consume. In the event of contamination, traveler’s diarrhea usually disappears without treatment. Traveler’s diarrhea can appear suddenly during your trip or shortly after you return home. Symptoms tend to subside after 48 hours and disappear completely within a week. If you suffer from severe dehydration, persistent vomiting, bloody stools or high fever, or if your symptoms last more than a few days, consult a doctor. If your traveler’s diarrhea is caused by certain organisms that are known to be susceptible to antibiotics, you may benefit by certain prescription medications. Be especially vigilant with children, as traveler’s diarrhea can cause severe dehydration in a short period of time. The local embassy or consulate can help you find a recognized health professional who speaks your language.
It is possible that the traveler’s diarrhea is caused by the stress of travel or a change in diet, however, there is almost always an infectious agent to blame. The most common cause of traveler’s diarrhea is enterotoxigenic bacteria Escherichia coli (ETEC). These bacteria attach themselves to the wall of the intestine and release a toxin that causes diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Dehydration caused by diarrhea can lead to serious complications, including organ damage, shock or coma. Signs and symptoms of dehydration include a very dry mouth, intense thirst, little or no urine and extreme weakness. Dehydration is particularly dangerous for children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. The general rule of thumb for eating when travelling to another country is to boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it.
How to prevent traveler’s diarrhea?
1) Be careful what you eat:
Do not consume food from street vendors. Avoid unpasteurized milk and dairy products, including ice cream. Avoid raw or undercooked meat, fish and shellfish. Avoid wet food at room temperature, such as sauces and buffets. Eat well-cooked, hot food. Choose fruits and vegetables that you can peel yourself, such as bananas, oranges and avocados. Avoid salads and unpeeled fruits, such as grapes and berries.
2) Do not drink foreign tap water
Be aware that alcohol in a drink will not protect you from contaminated water or ice. If you need to drink local water, boil it for three minutes. Keep your mouth closed during the shower. Drink canned or bottled beverages in their original containers – including water, soft drinks, beer or wine – as long as you break the seals on the containers yourself. Use bottled water to brush your teeth. Use bottled or boiled water to mix infant formula. Wash your hands often and always before eating. If washing is not possible, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol to wash your hands before eating.
CAUTION Public health experts generally do not recommend taking antibiotics to prevent travelers’ diarrhea, as this can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotics offer no protection against viruses and parasites, but they can give travellers a false sense of security about the risks of consuming local food and beverages. As a preventive measure, you can ask your doctor or pharmacist for information.
How to treat traveler’s diarhea?
It is important to try to stay hydrated with safe liquids. Before you travel, talk to your doctor about appropriate medications to take with you so you don’t have to buy diarrhea medication while travelling. Some of the drugs available in other countries may be dangerous. Some may even have been banned in the United States. Dehydration is the most likely complication of travelers’ diarrhea, so it is important to try to stay well hydrated. An oral rehydration salt (ORS) solution is the best way to replace lost fluids. These solutions contain water and salts in specific proportions to reconstitute both fluids and electrolytes. They also contain glucose to improve absorption in the intestinal tract.
If these products are not available, you can prepare your own rehydration solution in case of emergency by mixing together:
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 4 tablespoons of sugar
- 1 litre of drinking water
If your dehydration symptoms do not improve, seek medical attention immediately. Oral rehydration solutions are intended for urgent short-term use only. Avoid caffeine and dairy products, which can make symptoms worse or increase fluid loss. But keep drinking water. As your symptoms improve, try a diet of complex, easy-to-eat carbohydrates such as salty crackers, bland cereals, bananas, applesauce, dry toast or bread, rice, potatoes and plain noodles. Once the diarrhea is gone, you can resume your normal diet.
PS: Check out our healthy living articles HERE!