Don’t let the runs ruin your trip.
You’ve saved for months for the trip of your dreams. You hop off the plane and head to the first food spot you see to treat yourself to some exotic local cuisine. Later that evening, you start to feel a little … funny. It must be the jet lag, you tell yourself.
Fast-forward to a few hours later, you find yourself glued to the toilet unleashing the wrath of that dangerously delicious meal you had earlier. Sorry to break it to you, world traveler, but you may have come down with a case of travelers' diarrhea. (Here are other signs you may have food poisoning.)
Travelers' diarrhea is the most common travel-related illness—usually caused by consuming contaminated food and water. Travelers' diarrhea can occur anywhere, but the highest-risk destinations are most of Asia (except for Japan), Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America. Among travelers to these areas, a whopping 40 to 60 percent develop diarrhea, according to a study conducted by the International Traveler's Medical Service at the University of Connecticut.
In otherwise healthy adults, diarrhea is rarely serious, but it can definitely put a damper on your holiday. Thankfully, with a little TLC, this common travel bug is preventable. Here’s how to put a stop to the travel trots:
1. Eat food that is cooked and served hot. Heat kills those travelers' diarrhea-causing germs, so food that’s cooked thoroughly and is served steaming hot is usually A-OK. This is especially important if you dabble in street food in any developing countries. Street food vendors may not be held to the same hygiene standards as an established restaurant.
Because bacteria can grow and regrow at room temperatures, it’s also wise to avoid dining situations where food has been sitting out, such as buffets, even if the grub has been fully cooked.
2. Only eat raw fruit or veggies if they have a peel or are rinsed with clean (bottled) water. When it comes to pre-cut fruit or vegetables, you can never be sure how clean the hands were that chopped them, and how clean the water was that washed them. Salads and salsas should be avoided because shredded or finely cut vegetables offer a lot of surface for germs to grow on.
3. Drink beverages from factory-sealed containers. It’s very risky to drink the tap water when visiting most developing countries. It’s even risky to shower or brush your teeth with it, because a little bit could find its way into your mouth. Your best bet is to drink all your beverages from factory-sealed containers.
Even though most sealed drinks are probably safe, it’s important to keep in mind that dishonest vendors may sell tap water in “sealed” bottles where they actually glued the cap back on. Carbonated drinks are safest because those fizzy bubbles are proof that the bottle was sealed at the factory. If drinking from a can, wipe the opening before sipping.
4. Avoid ice. Unless you purchased bagged ice from a grocery store, it may be wise to avoid drinking a beverage with ice. Ice at restaurants is likely made with tap water.
5. Wash your hands with soap and water. Even if you’re making all the right food choices to avoid travelers' diarrhea, if your hands are contaminated and you touch your food or your mouth, all bets are off. Wash your hands with soap and water often—especially after using the bathroom or before eating. It’s also wise to keep an alcohol-based hand sanitizer on hand, since soap and water may not always be available.
If you do end up getting the runs during your trip, be sure to stay hydrated to prevent dehydration. There are also over-the-counter medications available, such as Lomotil or Imodium, that treat symptoms of diarrhea.
If you have travel plans and you’re concerned about travelers' diarrhea, see your doctor before you jet. They may be able to provide you with a medication, like antibiotics, that can help.
Travelers' Diarrhea. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Accessed on December 27, 2021 at https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/travelers-diarrhea)
Travelers' diarrhea: Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and treatment. UpToDate (Accessed on December 27, 2021 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/travelers-diarrhea-clinical-manifestations-diagnosis-and-treatment)
Food Water and Safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Accessed on December 27, 2021 at https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/food-water-safety)
Health problems in a large cohort of Americans traveling to developing countries. Farmington, CT: The International Traveler's Medical Service, University of Connecticut School of Medicine, 2000. (Accessed on December 27, 2021 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=11231210)