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Diarrhea While Traveling: Causes, Symptoms and Prevention

written by: Rochelle Connery • edited by: lrohner • updated: 5/31/2011

If you’ve ever had stomach troubles while on vacation, chances are that you’ve contracted travelers’ diarrhea somewhere along the line. Find out why this condition is so common, especially in locations you’ve never visited before.

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    About Travelers’ Diarrhea

    You might know what it’s like. You get off the plane after a five-hour flight, and the first thing you want to do is get a drink of water and some food. But what you don’t know is the conditions at the restaurant you purchased that food at might not be the most sanitary.

    Local restaurants, especially those in other countries where sanitation is not the number one concern of restaurant owners, serve food and drinks that are rife with bacteria. When this bacteria comes into contact with your intestines, a hard-to-control flow of diarrhea ensues. Not only does this put a sizeable crimp in your vacation plans, it’s painful and frustrating.

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    Symptoms of Travelers' Diarrhea

    Symptoms of this condition are by no means limited to diarrhea and feelings of being sick to the stomach. Vomiting, fever, bloating and other flu-like symptoms often accompany it, compounding your problem and putting even more vacation plans on hold.

    Your bowel movements will look different as well. Ordinary diarrhea is generally just looser stool, but this type of diarrhea will likely look and feel very watery. Your bowels will feel extremely irritated and probably exude a burning feeling whenever you take a stool.

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    Likely Causes

    It’s no joke about vacation in Mexico and drinking bad water. The same goes for many such countries, including most of Central America and parts of Asia. Anywhere that food conditions are less sanitary than in well-known establishments in the United States pose a probability of catching this condition.

    But just drinking bad water isn’t your only problem. You might run into bacteria or viral infections via undercooked meat or raw seafood, which are popular and well-tolerated by the natives but not so much by the tourists. Raw fruits and vegetables are also common carriers of bacteria since they are irrigated with the area's water supply.

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    What to Eat and Drink Instead

    Whether it's water or pop, only drink bottled beverages. Anything that has been hot, like tea or coffee, as well as alcoholic beverages like beer and wine, are often more suitable options than fresh drinks from a restaurant. Be sure to peel fruit before eating it, and only consume thoroughly cooked vegetables.

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    Prevention

    Taking probiotics or Pepto-Bismol may help reduce your risk of contracting this diarrhea. Drinking the right liquids and avoiding pre-peeled fruits and many types of raw foods also helps. However, depending on the food choices in the area, you might not have this luxury, in which case you may need to be treated with antibiotics.

    Always wash your hands before eating or drinking food while on vacation. You can bring along a vial of hand sanitizer to carry in a purse, backpack or fanny pack. This is a good idea, especially if public restrooms are few and far between or aren’t well-cleaned, in which case you increase your risk of diarrhea by picking up something in the bathroom.

    Always wash your hands after going to the bathroom as well, even if you don’t have this condition already. The less bacteria you subject your body to, the less likelihood you’ll have of getting diarrhea.