Everything You Need to Know About Travelers' Diarrhea

You're already aware that it's not fun, but here's what else you should know about the travel-related illness.

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With the end of every vacation comes a harsh wake-up call — nothing shocks your system like going from the beach back to the office. When you also get a case of travelers' diarrhea, it only makes matters worse (like, way worse). Travelers' diarrhea is one of the most common travel-related illnesses, hitting anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of travelers depending on the season and location, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while it's usually mild, it still sucks.

Here's everything you need to know about the causes, symptoms, and treatment of travelers' diarrhea.

The Basics of Travelers' Diarrhea

That's right: There's an official name for that special case of the runs that you might deal with during or a few days after a trip. Symptoms are what you'd expect — namely, passing three or more loose stools within 24 hours, plus potential nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever, and/or blood in the stools. No thanks.

You get travelers' diarrhea by consuming food or water that's contaminated with fecal bacteria, viruses, or parasites, explains Niket Sonpal, M.D., an internist and gastroenterologist in New York City. Since there are many different types of organisms that can cause diarrhea, it's hard to determine exactly how long the condition is contagious, he says.

All that said, one upside is that travelers' diarrhea is usually short and sweet. It typically improves within one to two days, then completely clears up within a week, according to the Mayo Clinic.

How to Treat Travelers' Diarrhea

Most cases are mild and go away on their own. In those instances, drinking sports drinks can help replenish electrolyte loss, according to the CDC. "I tell most of my patients that if they develop travelers' diarrhea, they should begin treatment, wash their hands, and use bleach-based cleansers in their bathroom until symptoms resolve," advises Dr. Sonpal. Doctors will typically prescribe antibiotics for more serious cases that come with a fever or blood, pus, or mucus in the stools, or last longer than a week.

How to Prevent Travelers' Diarrhea

Want to take measures to sidestep the unpleasant illness entirely? Makes sense. If you're taking a trip, you can improve your odds of avoiding travelers' diarrhea by steering clear of unsterilized water and foods such as undercooked meat, raw vegetables, street food, unpasteurized milk, and fruits that don't have peels that you remove before eating.

Some doctors will suggest taking bismuth subsalicylate (aka Pepto-Bismol) as a preventive step. However, Dr. Sonpal personally doesn't recommend taking it in anticipation of travelers' diarrhea. Besides the inconvenience of having to pack a lot of it, it has the potential to cause salicylate poisoning, especially in people who take aspirin, pregnant people, and children, he says. Ongoing studies are looking at whether taking probiotics might also help prevent travelers' diarrhea, but so far results have been inconclusive, according to the CDC.

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