Traveler’s diarrhea is a digestive tract disorder that commonly causes loose stools and abdominal cramps. It’s caused by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. Fortunately, traveler’s diarrhea usually isn’t serious — it’s just unpleasant.
When you visit a place where the climate, social conditions, or sanitary standards and practices are different from yours at home, you have an increased risk of developing traveler’s diarrhea.
Being careful about what you eat and drink while traveling can reduce your risk of traveler’s diarrhea. If you do develop traveler’s diarrhea, chances are it will resolve without treatment. However, it’s a good idea to have doctor-approved medications with you when you travel to high-risk areas in case diarrhea persists.
It’s possible that traveler’s diarrhea may stem from the stress of traveling or a change in diet. But almost always an infectious agent is to blame.
You typically develop traveler’s diarrhea after ingesting food or water that’s contaminated with organisms from feces. These organisms are infectious agents — including various bacteria, viruses and parasites — that enter your digestive tract and overpower your defense mechanisms, resulting in signs and symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea.
The most common cause of traveler’s diarrhea is enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli (ETEC) bacteria. These bacteria attach themselves to the lining of your intestine and release a toxin that causes diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
So why aren’t natives of high-risk countries affected in the same way? Often their bodies have become accustomed to the bacteria and developed immunity to them.
Traveler’s diarrhea usually begins abruptly during your trip or shortly after you return home. Most cases improve within one to two days without treatment and clear up completely within a week. However, you can have multiple episodes of traveler’s diarrhea during one trip.
The most common signs and symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea are:
- Abrupt onset of passage of three or more loose stools a day
- An urgent need to defecate
- Abdominal cramps
Sometimes, people experience moderate to severe dehydration, persistent vomiting, a high fever, bloody stools, or severe pain in the abdomen or rectum. If you or your child experiences any of these signs or symptoms or if the diarrhea lasts longer than a few days, it’s time to see a doctor.
When to see a doctor
Traveler’s diarrhea usually goes away on its own within several days. Signs and symptoms may last longer and be more severe if the condition is caused by organisms other than common bacteria. In such cases, you may need prescription medications to help you get better.
If you have severe dehydration, persistent vomiting, bloody stools or a high fever, or if your symptoms last for more than a few days, seek medical help. The local embassy or consulate may help you find a well-regarded medical professional who speaks your language.
Be especially cautious with children because traveler’s diarrhea can cause severe dehydration in a short time. Call a doctor if your child is sick and exhibits any of the following signs or symptoms:
- Persistent vomiting
- Bloody stools or severe diarrhea
- A fever of 102 F (39 C) or more
- Dry mouth or crying without tears
- Signs of being unusually sleepy, drowsy or unresponsive
- Decreased volume of urine, including fewer wet diapers in infants