Traveler’s Diarrhea

What is Traveler’s Diarrhea?

Traveler’s diarrhea is a disorder of the digestive tract that causes the patient to have abdominal cramping and loose stools. It happens when a person consumes water or food that has been improperly handled and, as a result, contaminated.

It is a common illness that afflicts travelers while they are in locations with climates, sanitary standards, and social conditions that differ from that to which they are accustomed. Areas of the world where this frequently occurs include the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Luckily, traveler’s diarrhea is more of an unpleasant nuisance than a serious disorder. For some, it may be due to the stress that accompanies traveling and the ensuing change in diet.

More often, however, it is the result of some type of infection from various bacteria, parasites, and viruses that make their way into a person’s digestive tract. E. coli is the most common offender. Natives do not develop the condition because they have been previously exposed to the infecting agent and have developed immunity.

What are the Symptoms of Traveler’s Diarrhea?

People who encounter traveler’s diarrhea frequently complain of experiencing many symptoms.

Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abrupt onset of diarrhea
  • Loose stools
  • Urgent need to go
  • General discomfort
  • Weakness
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Painful and explosive gas
  • Loss of appetite

Some will experience more severe symptoms like dehydration, bloody stools, severe pain, high fever, and persistent vomiting. However, the infection is rarely life threatening and typically clears up within a few days to a week.

Traveler’s Diarrhea Causes

Location and poor sanitation

Traveler’s diarrhea is well known to people that visit developing countries in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, where a lack of proper sanitation in the restaurant industry often allows contamination of food or beverages that cause traveler’s diarrhea.

Choosing the wrong foods

Not taking care to select “safe” foods, water, and other beverages is problematic. Freshly cooked, hot foods are safer than those on a buffet. Drink water from sealed bottles or water that has been boiled. Don’t use ice cubes unless they’re made from bottled water.

E. coli

90% of traveler’s diarrhea is caused by bacterial infections, and most commonly by E. Coli present in food or beverages. Other bacteria strains include salmonella, campylobacter, and vibrio, but they affect travelers far less often.

Self-induced damage

Travelers contaminate themselves far too frequently. Not keeping their hands clean is one issue. Another is eating spicier foods, or food that has more fat than what is normally eaten, even drinking more alcohol than the body is used to can cause issues.

Medication issues

People that take antacids or have low stomach acid are more susceptible to travelers’ diarrhea. Further, people with medical problems affecting their gastrointestinal systems, like AIDS, diabetes, Crohn’s or other autoimmune diseases, are at higher risk.

How is Traveler’s Diarrhea Treated?

Most cases of traveler’s diarrhea will go away on their own without needing medical care. If the symptoms begin to bother the patient, a doctor can prescribe anti-motility agents or antibiotics.

Additionally, remedies like Pepto-Bismol can be used. Increased fluid intake is important to prevent dehydration, and acetaminophen can be taken to relieve pain and fevers.

Traveler’s Diarrhea Prevention

Location, location

Preventing travelers’ diarrhea means being vigilant. Choose your vacation destinations wisely. Avoid developing countries, but if you opt to visit them, be sure that the resort is highly-rated and puts food safety first.


Pepto-Bismol, or bismuth sub-salicylate, has long been used by travelers to prevent “Montezuma’s Revenge.” Studies have shown that adult dosages of two tablets four times a day reduces the potential for travelers’ diarrhea as much as 60%. However, people susceptible to constipation should lower the dosages.


Some frequent travelers tout the benefits of probiotics like Lactobacillus in the prevention of travelers’ diarrhea.

Prophylactic antibiotics

Doctors can prescribe preventive rounds of antibiotics before a trip, though many are reluctant to do so because of side effects and increased antibiotic resistance.

Last Reviewed:
October 11, 2016
Last Updated:
October 23, 2017