What Is Travel Diarrhea? Everything You Never Wanted to Know

by | Jul 7, 2023 | 0 comments

I don’t want to write this post just as much as you don’t want to read it, but considering I just experienced the worst illness of my life after traveling to Egypt, it’s necessary I share this info. My hope is that you’re asking “what is travel diarrhea” not because you have it, but because you’re trying to prevent it on your upcoming trip to Mexico, dream trip to Thailand or on your next solo adventure.

what is travel diarrhea in egypt image of couple in egypt with camels

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What Is Travel Diarrhea? Understanding Your Trip Killer

Traveler’s diarrhea, also known as “Montezuma’s Revenge”, “Delhi Belly,” or as I like to call it, “Pharaoh’s Fury”, is a common ailment that affects many travelers. It’s a type of diarrhea that occurs when you travel to a new place and your body is exposed to unfamiliar bacteria, parasites or viruses.

The symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea typically include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, bloating and nausea. It can be caused by a variety of infections, including bacteria such as E. coli, parasites such as Giardia, and viruses such as norovirus.

It’s important to note that not all cases of diarrhea that occur during travel are traveler’s diarrhea. Other factors, like changes in diet, stress and jet lag, can also contribute to diarrhea while traveling.

Traveler’s diarrhea is most commonly associated with travel to developing countries, where sanitation and hygiene standards may not be as high as in developed countries. However, it can also occur in developed countries, particularly in areas with poor sanitation or in situations where food and water may be contaminated.

To prevent travel diarrhea, it is important to take precautions like avoiding tap water and ice, avoiding raw or undercooked foods, avoiding fruit you can’t peel and practicing good hygiene, like washing your hands frequently. In some cases, medications such as antibiotics or antidiarrheal agents may be recommended to prevent or treat traveler’s diarrhea.

While travel diarrhea is usually not serious and will go away on its own within a few days, it can be majorly uncomfortable and disruptive to your travel plans.

image of hand holding an apple

Quick Story Time on How I Got This Awful Travel Illness in Egypt

I recently took my dream honeymoon to Egypt. The ancient temples, tombs and sites we’re absolutely mind blowing…but the food on our Nile Cruise and at our all-inclusive resort in Sharm el Sheikh, was WAY less than ideal. There were little to no authentic Egyptian options, and the overall quality was…low.

After days on end of eating this unappetizing food, I craved something familiar and normal. The one thing both the boat and resort had was shiny, fresh apples. And guys, these apples looked so good. I ate 1-2 almost every single day and they were delicious. Any time I needed a snack, I just grabbed one of these apples. A fresh, healthy snack right? Wrong!

My husband and I both got food poisoning and symptoms of traveler’s sickness for two days, but we recovered and continued on our trip. A few days later I started feeling cold-like symptoms and by the last day of our trip I had a mild fever (felt like the flu). By some miracle, I felt totally fine for our 24+ hour journey home to Florida.

I Believe It Was the Damn Apples!

Fast forward to the day after we get back from our trip, and I am SERIOUSLY ill. I’m talking 102°F fever, unbearable cramps in my lower stomach and nothing staying…in my body. This went on for three days with ZERO improvement. It was so scary and I was so sick and uncomfortable and starting to get really weak. I hadn’t eaten in two days because food just made the stomach pain so much worse and I had no appetite.

Trust me, when you feel so sick that you actually believe you might have typhoid (one of the most common sicknesses in Egypt), you know it’s bad!

On day three, I did a telehealth visit and the doctor prescribed the travel diarrhea antibiotic recommended on the CDC website called azithromycin. Ciprofloxacin is an alternative but this is WAY stronger of an antibiotic and I didn’t want to take something so strong and further wipe out my good bacteria. Anyway, after starting the antibiotics, I started improving every day, thank GOD.

All this story time is to say I truly believe I got sick from the damn shiny apples! They were out in the dining hall, ready to grab-and-go so it never crossed my mind that they weren’t throughly “cleansed”. I should have been washing the apples thoroughly with purified water, or better yet, not eaten ANY fruit I couldn’t peel or cook.

Though I’ll never truly know what caused me to get so sick, I truly believe it was from the apples. My husband didn’t eat any and he was fine! It’s just like Snow White!

action figure sitting on toilet with travel diarrhea

Travel Diarrhea Symptoms

Experiencing diarrhea while traveling can be a major inconvenience and ruin your trip. And in the moment, it may feel like it’s ruining your life.

Symptoms of travel diarrhea can vary from mild to severe and can last for a few days to a few weeks. The most common symptom of travel diarrhea is loose stools, which can be accompanied by abdominal cramps, gas and bloating. You may also experience nausea, vomiting and fever.

In some cases, travel diarrhea can be severe and persistent, leading to bloody stools and high fever. If you experience these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately!

Travel diarrhea can also cause fatigue and abdominal pain, which can make it difficult to enjoy your trip. If you’re showing symptoms or suspect you have it, make sure you stay hydrated and rest as much as possible to help your body recover.

In summary, symptoms of travel diarrhea can include:

  • Loose stools
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Gas and bloating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Severe diarrhea
  • Bloody diarrhea

The Signs of Dehydration

When you suffer from travel diarrhea, it’s essential to keep yourself hydrated. Dehydration occurs when your body loses more fluids than it takes in, and it can lead to serious health problems if left untreated. You may be dehydrated if you experience:

  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Dark yellow urine or not needing to urinate as often
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Rapid heartbeat or breathing
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Headache or muscle cramps

It’s crucial to drink plenty of fluids to rehydrate your body if you experience these symptoms. Water is the best option, but you can also drink sports drinks that contain electrolytes to help replace the minerals lost during diarrhea. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids and seek medical attention if you experience any signs of moderate to severe dehydration.

causes of travel diarrhea image of ice in margarita

Common Ways to Get Travel Diarrhea

When traveling, you’re exposed to totally different food and water sources that you’re body is not familiar with. Unfortunately, if the food or drink has any bacteria, viruses or parasites, it can lead to travel diarrhea. Some of the most common ways to get travel diarrhea are:

Contaminated food: Eating food that’s not cooked properly or left out in the open for too long.

Contaminated water: Drinking local water that’s not properly treated or comes from an unsafe source.

Ice: Drinking a drink with ice made from contaminated water.

Fruits and vegetables: Eating raw fruits and vegetables that have not been cooked or properly washed with purified water. Wash all fruits and vegetables you cannot peel with purified water or don’t eat them.

Shellfish: Eating raw or undercooked shellfish, like oysters and clams.

Street vendors: Eating food from street vendors that was not be prepared in a sanitary way or has been sitting out for hours or days. Make sure to choose vendors that look clean and have a lot of customers!

You can totally have an amazing, carefree trip in exotic places like Egypt or Bali without getting travel diarrhea. You just want to be aware of the causes of this sickness so you  reduce your risk of getting sick and enjoy your trip to the fullest!

image of map to explain where you can get travel diarrhea

Geographical Risk Factors

When it comes to travel diarrhea, you’re more likely to get it in some places than others. Unfortunately, some of the most fun travel destinations are where you’re likely to experience this nightmare condition.

You should take precautions and pay extra attention to what you eat and drink if you’re traveling in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico and South America, especially if it’s a country with poor sanitation and water quality.

Climate

In addition to geographical factors, the climate can also play a role in your risk of diarrhea. In hot and humid climates, bacteria and other pathogens can thrive, increasing your risk of getting sick. If you’re traveling to a hot and humid destination, be extra cautious about what you eat and drink!

image of washing hands to prevent travel diarrhea

Travel Diarrhea Prevention

Preventing travel diarrhea is essential to ensure that you enjoy your trip without any health issues. Here are some tips to help you prevent travel diarrhea:

Drink bottled water: Drink only bottled water that is sealed and comes from a reliable source. Avoid tap water, ice cubes and drinks made with tap water.

Boil water: If you cannot find bottled water, boil tap water for at least one minute before drinking it.

Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer: Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer frequently, especially before eating or touching your mouth. Make sure to rub your hands together until they are dry.

Wash your hands: Wash your hands with soap and water frequently, especially before eating or touching your mouth.

Be careful with food and water: Avoid eating raw or undercooked food, especially meat, fish and eggs. Eat only fruits and vegetables that you can peel or wash with purified water. Avoid street food and food from unhygienic places.

Take Pepto-Bismol: Consider taking Pepto-Bismol tablets before meals to reduce the risk of traveler’s diarrhea. However, consult your doctor before taking any medication.

Use iodine or chlorine: If you cannot find bottled water or boil tap water, you can use use iodine or chlorine tablets to purify water.

By following these simple tips, you can reduce the risk of travel diarrhea and enjoy your trip without any health issues. Yay!

image of person resting as best treatment for travel diarrhea

Treatment of Travel Diarrhea

Most cases of travel diarrhea will clear up on their own with rest and hydration.

If you experience travel diarrhea and it isn’t improving or gone after a few days, speak with a doctor or head to a pharmacy. Doctors and pharmacists are extremely knowledgable in other countries and often trained in the top schools so don’t be wary about going to one if you’re sick.

You may get prescribed antibiotics, but antibiotics are not always needed and can sometimes worsen symptoms or lead to antibiotic resistance. A doctor will help determine if antibiotics are necessary for your specific case.

Over-the-counter medications, such as loperamide (Imodium), can be used to help control symptoms of diarrhea. You should note, however, that these medications do not cure the underlying infection and should not be used for extended periods of time. (e.g. If your body is trying to get something out, you should probably let it out.)

The two most common travel diarrhea antibiotic are Rifaximin and azithromycin. Ciprofloxacin can also be used, but it is important to note that it has been associated with an increased risk of antibiotic resistance.

In addition to medication, consuming salts and electrolytes can help replace lost fluids and minerals. Some medications, such as bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol), can also help reduce symptoms of diarrhea. (In hindsight, I should have taken pepto at the first sign of sickness.)

Definitely consult with a healthcare professional before starting any treatment for travel diarrhea. They can help determine the best course of action for your specific case!

Special Considerations

When it comes to travel diarrhea, there are some special considerations you should keep in mind. These can help you prevent the condition or manage it if you do experience it.

Children

Children, especially young children, are more susceptible to travel diarrhea than adults because their immune systems are not fully developed yet. If you’re traveling with children, make sure they drink plenty of water and avoid uncooked foods. You may also want to bring along some over-the-counter medication in case they do experience diarrhea.

Complications

In some cases, travel diarrhea can lead to complications. If you experience severe diarrhea or bloody bowel movements, seek medical attention immediately. Additionally, if you have irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease, you may be more susceptible to travel-related illness. It’s wise to talk to your doctor before you travel to see if there are any special precautions you should take.

Medications

If you take anticoagulants, you may need to adjust your dosage while traveling. This is because changes in diet and activity level can affect how your body absorbs the medication. Talk to your doctor before you travel to see if you need to make any adjustments.

Constipation

Travel diarrhea is not the only digestive issue you may experience while traveling. Constipation can also be a problem, especially if you are not drinking enough water or eating enough fiber. Make sure you stay hydrated and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to stay regular!

Alcohol

While beer and wine may seem like a safe choice when traveling, they can actually increase your risk of travel diarrhea. This is because they can irritate your digestive system and cause inflammation.

Remember, prevention is key when it comes to travel diarrhea. By taking the necessary precautions and being mindful of what you eat and drink, you can reduce your risk of experiencing this seriously unpleasant condition.

backpack to show travel diarrhea medications to pack

Add These Travel Diarrhea Medications to Your Packing List

If you’re about to take a trip to somewhere with questionable food and water, you definitely want to get all the meds and items on this list and pack them in your toiletry bag. It’s better to be safe than sorry, trust me.

Pepto-Bismol

The one thing I wish I did at the FIRST sign of illness in Egypt was take Pepto-Bismol aka bismuth subsalicylate. It actually helps kill the bacteria that can cause travel diarrhea AND it coats your stomach for some added protection. Get Pepto-Bismol on Amazon here.

Imodium (loperamide)

Imodium isn’t going to cure the cause of travel diarrhea, but it will relieve the symptoms effectively which can be an actual lifesaver if you have to hop on a plane, train or long bus ride. Get Imodium on Amazon here.

Electrolyte Packets

Getting enough sodium with your water helps you stay hydrated in the event you get traveler’s diarrhea. Delicious, travel-size electrolyte packs are an easy way to boost your hydration efforts. You just add to your water and enjoy! Get LMNT Electrolyte Powder Packets on Amazon here.

pH Friendly Wipes

Wipes are great to have when traveling in general, but I’m sure you can graphically understand why they’re great if you get travel diarrhea. Get Rael Travel Size Wipes on Amazon here.

Homeopathic Remedy Arsenicum Album

If you do start experiencing symptoms of travel diarrhea, and want to treat traveler’s diarrhea naturally, you may want to try the homeopathic remedy Arsenicum Album.

Homeopathic remedies are true medicines made from plants, animals and minerals substances that stimulate your body to heal itself. I brought a few homeopathic remedies with me to Egypt but not this one and it’s one of the most common remedies for treating travel diarrhea! Get Boiron Arsenicum Album 30c here.

Emergency Antibiotics

If you are seriously concerned about getting travel diarrhea on your trip, you can ask your doctor for a prescription of antibiotics to take with you. This way, you have them on hand in the event you start experiencing symptoms. This is definitely what I’m doing moving forward!

woman sipping drink at philea temple egypt

Frequently Asked Questions About Travel Diarrhea

How do you treat traveler’s diarrhea?

The most effective treatment for traveler’s diarrhea is to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, such as water, clear broths and electrolyte solutions. In addition, over-the-counter medications, such as bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol) and loperamide (IMODIUM ®), can help alleviate symptoms.

Antibiotics may be prescribed in severe cases. Based on personal experience, this is one time when I would not hesitate to take antibiotics if you’re not better in two days or so.

What are the symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea?

The symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea typically include abdominal cramps, nausea, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. In some cases, fever and bloody stools may also occur.

Can traveler’s diarrhea be prevented?

How to prevent traveler’s diarrhea the best you can:

  • Practice good hygiene, such as washing your hands frequently.
  • Avoid tap water and ice cubes.
  • Avoid raw or undercooked food.
  • Avoid any uncooked fruit or vegetable that you cannot peel.
  • Thoroughly wash uncooked fruits and vegetables in purified water.

Taking probiotics to establish a healthy gut may also be a good preventative.

What causes traveler’s diarrhea?

Traveler’s diarrhea is caused by consuming food or water that is contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites. This can occur in areas with poor sanitation or hygiene practices like Egypt, Mexico or Thailand.

How long does traveler’s diarrhea typically last?

Traveler’s diarrhea typically lasts for a few days to a week. However, in some cases, it may last longer or become chronic.

Is loperamide an effective treatment for traveler’s diarrhea?

Loperamide (also known as IMODIUM ®) can be an effective treatment for traveler’s diarrhea by reducing the frequency and severity of diarrhea. However, it should not be used if there is blood in the stool or if the diarrhea is accompanied by a high fever or severe abdominal pain. In these cases, medical attention should be sought immediately!

Think about it, if you’re body is reacting in a way that is desperately trying to rid your body of bacteria (aka diarrhea) you do not want to take a medication that prevents that process!

What traveler’s diarrhea azithromycin dosage do you take?

My doctor prescribed me 500 mg pills of azithromycin to be taken for three days (one 500 mg pill per day). Or, per the CDC website, you can take one 1,000mg dose of azithromycin.

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