Travellers’ diarrhoea (often simply called ‘food poisoning’) is the most common medical problem in holidaymakers. Changes in diet, or even the stress of the journey, can alter bowel habit, but most cases result from an infection of the intestine acquired through ingesting contaminated food or water. The usual cause is a bacterium, though viruses, protozoa and parasitic worms are occasionally responsible.
Symptoms and Risk Factors
The diarrhoea usually begins within the first week of the holiday, though the incubation period can vary depending on the infection. Other symptoms include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, flatulence and bloating.
The risk of developing travellers’ diarrhoea is greatest in residents of Europe, North America or Australia who visit Latin America, Africa, the Middle East or Asia. It is less common in holidaymakers who stay and dine in five-star hotels and more common in those who travel overland and eat from local street vendors.
The risk is also increased in the young and the elderly, in people who have diabetes or an existing problem with their immune system, and in those taking certain drugs. If you have any concerns at all about intestinal infections abroad, and particularly if your group includes children or seniors, be sure to speak to your doctor well before you leave for your holiday.
Reducing the Risk of Travellers’ Diarrhoea
- Avoid uncooked fruit and vegetables that you have not peeled yourself. Do not eat salads, unless you know for certain that they were washed in sterilized water.
- Use bottled water for drinking and cleaning teeth, and avoid ice in drinks.
- Water purification tablets can be used if you have no bottled water. These kill most bacteria, though the cysts of parasites may survive. To be certain that water is clean, boil it for ten minutes.
- Avoid eating reheated food that has been left standing without refrigeration.
- Avoid undercooked meat and seafood, unpasteurized milk and dairy products, and mayonnaise.
- Always wash your hands before eating or preparing food, to avoid transferring organisms from fingers to mouth.
- If you are camping, take particular care with personal hygiene and always make sure your cookware is clean before use.
- Take care not to swallow water when swimming in pools or the sea, and especially in freshwater lakes.
Managing the Symptoms
In an otherwise healthy adult, the symptoms of travellers’ diarrhoea usually disappear within a few days without any specific treatment. If you are unfortunate enough to develop diarrhoea while on holiday, be sure to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. An oral rehydration solution may be taken, or add a spoonful of sugar to a salty drink made with Bovril or stock cubes. Be sure to use clean water for making drinks.
Eat a light, bland diet including salty soup, bread, rice or pasta. Bananas contain plenty of potassium to help replace lost salts, and yoghurt can help settle the stomach. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks such as tea, coffee and cola, as these can worsen the dehydration.
Anti-diarrhoeal treatments may be bought from pharmacies and reduce the amount of diarrhoea by slowing the action of the gut. They can have side-effects, however, and may even prolong the diarrhoea because they slow the clearance of harmful bacteria from the gut. If you choose to use such a product, always follow the instructions on the packet.
If the symptoms are prolonged or severe, or you have a fever or see blood in the diarrhoea, seek medical attention at once.
Take Simple Precautions for a Happy Vacation
Travellers’ diarrhoea is so common that most people are likely to suffer from it at some time or another. You can help reduce the problem by always taking care with what you eat and drink while overseas.