Travelers' Diarrhea: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

Travelers' Diarrhea Sucks: Here's What You Need to Know

Street food on Jalan Alor © Lauren Juliff
© Lauren Juliff

It happens to every traveler at one point or another, and can ruin even the most carefully laid plans. Travelers' diarrhea is unpleasant but a near-inevitable aspect of life on the road. Here, I talk about the symptoms you can expect, how to avoid getting it in the first place, and what you can do to treat it as quickly as possible. 

What is Travelers' Diarrhea?

Travelers' diarrhea is a gastrointestinal illness that affects travelers. Common symptoms include diarrhea, nausea and stomach cramps. As many as 50% of travelers experience travelers' diarrhea at some point in their travels, especially if they're traveling in developing countries. 

What are the Symptoms?

Symptoms of travelers' diarrhea include: 

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever 
  • Stomach cramps
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bloating
  • Malaise
  • Explosive and/or painful gas


What Causes It and How Can you Avoid Getting It?

The main cause of travelers' diarrhea is the consumption of contaminated food or water, with food being the main cause. Most cases are caused by the E Coli bacteria. Despite popular belief one of the easiest ways to avoid catching travelers' diarrhea is to eat at popular street food stalls -- especially in Southeast Asia. Aim for a stall with a high turnover, and where you can see the food being made in front of you. 

If you're traveling in a country that has frequent power cuts and issues with refrigeration (Nepal being a good example), you should thinking about avoiding dairy, fruits and vegetables, and staying away from meat. 

Bottled beverages, beer and wine, hot coffee and tea, and fruits that can be peeled should be safe -- just check the bottles are sealed before you buy them!

How Can you Treat It?

First of all, you want to try and avoid treating it with Imodium. All this does is prolong your suffering until the next day. The only reason to take Imodium is if you have a long bus journey ahead of you and know you'll be asking the driver to stop for a bathroom break every three minutes! If you have something you can't get out of then take an Imodium. If you can get away with just lying in your guesthouse until it passes, avoid it. 

Next, you'll want to keep yourself as hydrated as possible -- hopefully you packed some rehydration sachets in your first aid kit like we recommend! You're going to want to try and flush the bug out of you as quickly as possible and water, along with rehydration sachets can help with this. Diarrhea can cause dehydration so make sure you drink as much as you possibly can.

Another way to treat travelers' diarrhea is to avoid food if that's a trigger. If you're experiencing nausea and think food will cause you to throw up then pass on the food for a few days until you're feeling better. A liquid diet will help get the bug out of you and you won't risk eating anything else that could worsen it! 

You should leave antibiotics for a last resort as the majority of cases will recover without the need of antibiotics. The only exception is if it lasts for over a week and shows no signs of getting better. In that case, you'll want to head to a doctors and see what they suggest as a course of treatment. 

How Long Will it Last?

It depends isn't a satisfactory answer, even if it's the honest one. Instead, I'll tell you that, in my experience, in the dozen or so times I've caught traveler's diarrhea, it's lasted for 48 hours. The worst of it is typically over within 24 hours and I'm left feeling fragile for the next day. After then, I'm usually ready to start introducing food back into my diet.

If it lasts for longer than seven days then seek out a doctor as you may need antibiotics. 

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