What's Traveler's Diarrhea? Risk Factors and Prevention

Traveler's diarrhea may appear together with other symptoms, such as vomiting or fever. It's more common when traveling to certain destinations with low infrastructure and warm weather.
What's Traveler's Diarrhea? Risk Factors and Prevention

Last update: 28 March, 2021

Traveler’s diarrhea is diarrhea that appears when we travel to a place or country with hygiene and sanitation conditions that differ from our place of origin. It’s due to infection by bacteria or viruses present in the water or food we eat.

In recent years, tourism has been changing. Nowadays, many people choose to travel to countries that don’t yet have an adequate infrastructure, or exotic places where hygiene and sanitation conditions aren’t the best.

The truth is that, even though the incidence of traveler’s diarrhea has been decreasing, it affects around 40% of travelers, according to estimates. It usually appears suddenly during the trip or just upon return, which may seriously affect a person’s plans.

Although traveler’s diarrhea isn’t usually serious and tends to go away on its own, it can present complications. Therefore, in this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about this disorder and the main risk factors for contracting it.

What’s traveler’s diarrhea?

Traveler’s diarrhea occurs when we’re exposed to certain microorganisms, while traveling, that we’re not exposed to in our place of origin. These may be viruses, bacteria, or even parasites.

Most often, we develop an infection by drinking water that hasn’t been properly treated and disinfected. There are many places in the world where the water quality isn’t up to standard. However, it can also be caused by ingesting food.

Most cases of traveler’s diarrhea are caused by Escherichia coli bacteria. Specifically, there are certain strains of this bacterium, such as enterohemorrhagic E. coli, which stands out as the cause of a large number of cases and of more aggressive diarrhea.

Diarrhea usually comes on suddenly. It can occur during your stay and alter all the plans you had for your trip. Therefore, it’s important to take certain precautions to avoid it. However, it can also appear when you return or move on to your next destination.

In addition to diarrhea, these infections can cause other symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting. Even abdominal cramps and fever are common. The problem is that, if not treated properly, it can lead to dehydration.

A man in the bathroom clutching his abdomen.

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What are the risk factors for traveler’s diarrhea?

The first risk factor for contracting traveler’s diarrhea is the destination. As we’ve mentioned, sanitary conditions are very important, especially the quality of water disinfection.

For this reason, the countries where most cases occur are those in Central America, South America, Africa, and Asia. Similarly, travel conditions have an influence. For example, if you travel with few resources -backpacker style- it’s easier to ingest something that’s contaminated or stay in unhealthy places.

The travel season is also important, as infections are more frequent in the warmer months. We can’t forget that the conditions of each person are equally determinant. A person with a weakened immune system is more vulnerable to any infection.

A woman traveling with a backpack.
The destination is a determining factor in the occurrence of traveler’s diarrhea. Warm places are more likely to cause it.

You may be interested in: Clostridium Difficile-Associated Diarrhea

How can it be prevented?

To prevent traveler’s diarrhea, you can follow some simple tips regarding food and drinks. Ideally, you should eat food that’s cooked thoroughly and properly, and served hot. Avoid untreated products, such as unpasteurized dairy products.

For example, try not to eat street food. In the case of water, you should always try to drink bottled and well-sealed water. Try not to drink tap water, not even for brushing your teeth or rinsing fruit. Also, if you ask for water, make sure it’s in the form of hot drinks, such as tea.

The most important thing is that, if any of the above symptoms appear, you should go to the nearest doctor as soon as possible. Although diarrhea may disappear on its own, it can also have serious consequences, such as dehydration.

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