Travellers’ diarrhoea is largely caused by the ingestion of contaminated food and water and the NHS estimates that 20-60% of people will experience this sort of sickness when travelling abroad. Higher numbers of people get sick when travelling to areas of Asia and Africa.
How can I avoid travellers' diarrhoea?
The simple answer is that you need to avoid contaminated food or drink. "Contamination" is not usually obvious, but you can take precautions by following these general guidelines.
Foods/drinks that are often unsafe in countries with poor sanitation
- Tap water
- Cold drinks made and sold by a street vendor
- Ice cream
- Raw or undercooked meat
- Fruit already peeled by someone else
Foods/drinks that are usually safe
- Piping hot, freshly cooked food
- Packaged and sealed food
- Sealed bottled water
- Canned food
- Fresh bread
- Fruit and vegetables (if you peel them yourself)
- Tea and coffee
You should also be careful using water for activities other than drinking; for example, use clean water for brushing your teeth.
You should also get into the habit of washing your hands with soap and warm water regularly and generally being more aware of the hygiene standards when you are abroad.
You may also want prepare water and food for yourself; this is particularly useful when you are in areas with no access to bottled water. To purify water, you can use the following methods.
Bring the water to a rolling boil and let it boil for at least one minute (or three minutes if you are at an altitude of 2000m or higher). If you need to cool the water for use, cover it to protect against contamination.
Chlorine dioxide (water purifier)
Chlorine dioxide is available to buy in tablet form or as droplets from some high street pharmacies and outdoor shops. When added to water it kills bacteria, cysts and viruses (including giardia and cryptosporidium). Please note that iodine droplets are no longer recommended for use as a water purifier.
Specialised travel filters (not to be confused with those you might buy in a supermarket) can be used to remove different sorts of matter from a water supply, including many types of bacteria. They are usually handheld and convenient for travel. Outdoor shops are often the best place to find these.
What happens if I get traveller’s diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea occurs at least three times a day and often more frequently than this. It is often accompanied by cramps, vomiting or fever.
In most cases, a bout of diarrhoea will pass on its own within a few days. However it can lead to dehydration which can make you even more unwell.
During the period that you are sick you should take small, frequent drinks of water, ideally mixed with rehydration sachets. If you are vomiting all that you drink, you should seek medical help.
Medical treatments for diarrhoea
Diarrhoea tablets such as loperamide can stop diarrhoea but should not be used if you have any blood in your diarrhoea or a high fever (contact medical help in these situations).
In severe cases, antibiotics can be used if a bacterial cause is likely (this is often the case in Asia and Africa).
If dehydration is not coming under control with drinking, then hospital treatment may be necessary for IV fluids.