Understanding and Treating Traveler’s Diarrhea

Tuesday 8 June 2021
Gastrointestinal Disorders
5 minute(s) read

Table of Contents


I. Traveler’s Diarrhea vs. Regular Diarrhea

II. Symptoms of Traveler’s Diarrhea

III. What Causes Traveler’s Diarrhea?

IV. Most Common Regions for Traveler's Diarrhea

V.  Diagnosis

VI. Treatment Options


Traveler’s Diarrhea vs. Regular Diarrhea

Diarrhea and traveler’s diarrhea are closely related. They can cause very similar symptoms and result from similar causes. The difference is that traveler’s diarrhea is only diagnosed if it occurs within 10 days of travel to a new area or country. [1]

Traveler’s diarrhea isn’t typically a serious condition. The chance of traveler’s diarrhea causing severe complications is low unless there is an underlying disease present. But even in healthy people, traveler’s diarrhea can cause unpleasant symptoms that may potentially disrupt your trip, so there are several antibiotics for traveler’s diarrhea available. Zithromax (azithromycin), quinolone antibiotics like ciprofloxacin, and Xifaxan (rifaximin) can help reduce symptoms by preventing bacterial growth.

Before embarking on your travels, consult your doctor for the appropriate vaccines, medications, and tips for your destination. Read on to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for traveler’s diarrhea.

a rusty water faucet

Symptoms of Traveler’s Diarrhea

The most common symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea are loose stools and abdominal cramps. Beyond these two symptoms, you may also experience:

  • Bloating
  • Excessive gas
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Sudden urges to defecate
  • Vomiting

If you have one or more of the above symptoms, you do not need to panic. These symptoms usually go away on their own within a couple of days. Regardless of the cause of your traveler’s diarrhea, these symptoms tend to be contagious, so it might be in the best interest of your friends and family for you to avoid close social interaction for a few days. [2]

While you do not need to worry about the aforementioned symptoms, other symptoms may signal a medical emergency. If you experience the below symptoms, you may want to visit a doctor. Severe signs of traveler’s diarrhea include:

  • Bloody stools
  • Fever higher than 102°F
  • Inability to keep liquids down
  • Intolerable pain in the abdominal area or rectum
  • Persistent vomiting for more than four hours
  • Symptoms of dehydration [2]

What Causes Traveler’s Diarrhea?

A combination of factors may contribute to traveler’s diarrhea. For some people, the stress from flying, staying in a new environment, or eating different foods may be enough to induce traveler’s diarrhea. For others, traveler’s diarrhea may occur due to bacterial, viral, or parasitical infections. These foreign substances typically enter the body through contaminated food and water. [3]

a child wearing floatation devices while playing at the beach

When discussing your next travel destination, you may hear your doctor mention that certain places are high-risk. You may wonder why the locals in high-risk countries are not constantly affected by diarrhea. Local people are usually unaffected because they have been exposed to the organisms in that area and have developed immunity. [3]

Most Common Regions for Traveler's Diarrhea

Countries where potable (drinkable) water is hard to access will often be considered high-risk. Traveler’s diarrhea also occurs more in hotter or wetter climates because humid environments can encourage bacterial or fungal growth. Foods also go bad quicker in warmer weather. You may need to take extra precautions when traveling to certain places in these destinations:

  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Central America
  • Mexico
  • South America
  • The Middle East 

Places in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and certain Caribbean islands may also carry some risk of traveler’s diarrhea. Traveler’s diarrhea is only uncommon in countries with similar cultures, climates, and food preparation procedures, including:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Japan
  • New Zealand
  • Northern Europe
  • Western Europe

Even if you are visiting a high-risk destination, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing traveler’s diarrhea. It is always important to carefully choose what you consume. Raw food items, such as fruits and vegetables, should always be washed in clean water.

To be safe, eat only cooked food that is served hot because room-temperature food has had time to accumulate bacteria. Drinking beverages from sealed bottles or cans can reduce your risk of consuming liquids from a contaminated water source. You should also avoid ice in your beverages as ice can be made from unclean water as well. [4]

an array of country flags

Diagnosis

Your doctor will consider a traveler’s diarrhea diagnosis if one or more of the following takes place: 

  • You have recently traveled to a high-risk destination
  • Your stomach acidity has decreased
  • You have a history of traveler’s diarrhea
  • You are under 30 years old [5]

If the symptoms affecting you are not serious, traveler’s diarrhea will be diagnosed based on the criteria that you have visited a part of the world where this condition is common. However, if your symptoms belong to the severe category, your doctor may examine your stomach makeup to determine the exact cause. Identifying the organism responsible for your symptoms will help your doctor prescribe the most suitable and effective kind of antibiotic. [6]

Treatment Options

If your symptoms are not indicative of complications, your traveler’s diarrhea may get better without treatment. While recovering, it is important to stay hydrated with clean water. If symptoms do not subside quickly or you experience severe symptoms, your doctor may prescribe a course of treatment with antibiotics. Some commonly used antibiotics for traveler’s diarrhea include Cipro (ciprofloxacin), Zithromax (azithromycin), and Xifaxan (rifaximin)

You may also be prescribed anti-motility agents for temporary relief of symptoms. Anti-motility agents are able to quickly ease stomach discomfort by reducing muscle spasms in your gastrointestinal tract. Keep in mind that anti-motility drugs are not recommended if you have a fever or blood in your stool. If you do, this type of medication may worsen your condition. Anti-motility medication should not be used by infants. [3]

The takeaway is that traveler’s diarrhea does not have to stop you from enjoying your favorite travel destinations. By practicing good hygiene and being wary of contaminated foods and drinks, you can increase your chance of avoiding painful diarrhea symptoms. And even if traveler’s diarrhea sidelines you for a while, staying hydrated can quickly get you back to full strength.

If you have a health condition or are taking medications that compromise your immune system, traveler’s diarrhea can be more serious. Talk to your doctor before making travel plans to ensure your adventures are safe and stress-free. [3]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.