What Is Travelers' Diarrhea?

Traveler's diarrhea is the most common illness in those who travel internationally, occurring in almost half of all travelers. If you plan on traveling abroad, make sure you understand the symptoms of this illness and how to treat it. Plus, learn 8 tips to prevent TD from ruining your trip.

Sanaz Majd, MD,
October 2, 2014
Episode #168

Summer vacation may be over, but many of us are already thinking about our travel plans for the holiday season.  Those of you who've traveled abroad may have already experienced travelers' diarrhea at some point. And those of you who haven't yet, count yourself lucky. Travelers' diarrhea (or TD) is the most common illness in those who travel internationally, occurring in 20%-50% of all travelers to some extent.

Imagine being in a completely foreign country (which can be anxiety-provoking in and of itself) and feeling ill.  Being hit with abdominal discomfort, cramping, nausea, and diarrhea can surely dampen your sense of adventure, along with your ability to enjoy your trip. Couple that with the challenges of navigating the health care systems of foreign countries where you may not speak the language and a routine trip can turn into a nightmare.  

If you know you’ll be traveling abroad, make sure you understand your risks for travelers' diarrhea and plan ahead.  Let’s discuss what it is, how to prevent it, and how to treat it.

What Is Travelers' Diarrhea?

Travelers' diarrhea (TD) can be caused by viruses and parasites, but is most often caused by bacteria.  Most of the bacterial origins of TD are caused by a bacteria you may have heard of called E. Coli.  It is transferred via the fecal-oral route – that means the ingestion of feces through the mouth (via food or water).  Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound very appetizing.  E. Coli is a bacteria that often stems from stool.  To put it bluntly, all it takes is a cook who used the bathroom, didn’t thoroughly wash her hands, and then contaminated your food with it.  That’s the reality and it happens…a lot.

Symptoms often begin within a few days after exposure, and may include:

Regions with higher risk of reported travelers' diarrhea are:

  • Central and South America
  • Mexico
  • Africa
  • Caribbean Islands
  • Asia (with the exceptions of Japan and Singapore)

Diagnosis of Travelers' Diarrhea

Most patients with travelers' diarrhea do not require any testing, and diagnosis is often made with a patient history and an exam.  Occasionally, your doctor may ask for samples of your stool to be sent for bacterial and/or ova/parasite culturing.  You may be asked to also provide a blood test in occasional instances as well.


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