As the summer approaches and COVID restrictions have been lifted, many of you might be planning to explore the world, gain new experiences and experience new cultures. Something to bear in mind when travelling abroad is looking after your gut health in a new environment.
Food, water, climate and environment can differ depending on where you go, and these factors impact your gut health. In developing countries, the risk factor for gut health is significantly increased.
You can do a few things to protect your gut whilst out of the country; keep reading to discover our tips and tricks for gut health and travelling, ensuring you limit your risk of traveller’s diarrhoea, and know what to do if you get it!
What is traveller's diarrhoea?
Traveller’s diarrhoea affects 20-50% of people travelling from industrialised countries to developing countries. It is usually contracted through food contaminated by faeces containing harmful bacteria, viruses or parasites, which then colonise in the intestines and lead to diarrhoea.1
You are most at risk of contracting bacteria that cause traveller’s diarrhoea in the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, Central America, South America and Asia, excluding Japan and South Korea.4
This diarrhoea doesn’t always show up immediately; you will usually contract it within the first 2 weeks of arriving at your destination, but symptoms can develop up to 2 weeks from returning home.1 You can also contract traveller’s diarrhoea more than once, so being vigilant about hygiene for your entire trip is crucial.
Although most people never discover the exact contaminant that caused their traveller’s diarrhoea, most commonly, it is caused by the pathogenic bacteria Escherichia coli.
Symptoms of traveller's diarrhoea
In mild cases, symptoms will be 3 or more loose bowel movements in 24 hours, accompanied by at least one of the following symptoms:1
- Rectal spasming
More extreme symptoms for more severe cases of traveller’s diarrhoea can include fever, chills and blood in the stool.
Treatment for traveller's diarrhoea
To treat traveller’s diarrhoea, hydration is key to replacing fluids lost through loose bowel movements. It is important to ensure water is not infected with pathogens whilst you are still travelling by boiling the water or purchasing bottled or disinfected water.1
Loperamide can be taken to stop the contractions of the muscles pushing the stool out, which can reduce the symptoms of traveller’s diarrhoea. It is important not to take this in the first few days of the traveller’s diarrhoea, as it is crucial for the harmful pathogens to be expelled from the body during this time.1
Antibiotics can be taken to kill the bacteria and, in most cases, will reduce the time period of symptoms by half, including diarrhoea.1
About 10% of people that experience travellers’ diarrhoea will develop post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome, a long-lasting change in bowel habits associated with pain or discomfort in the abdomen. Symptoms usually get better with time, although they can be lifelong.1
What can I do to prevent traveller's diarrhoea?
The first important prevention tactic to protect your gut is to be vigilant about hygiene. Regularly washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, ensuring you scrub every section of your hands, will help kill some harmful pathogens that could hurt your gut if you ingest them.2
Once you have washed your hands, properly dry them with a clean or disposable hand towel, as wet or damp environments are breeding grounds for bacteria. Wet hands are much more likely to pick up bacteria than dry hands, so dry thoroughly!3
Leaving your hands not completely dry can be counterproductive, as washing hands is not 100% effective for killing bacteria. Drying your hands on a dirty hand towel will transfer bacteria back onto your hands, too.
When choosing your food, always go for the hot option where possible. When food is properly cooked, harmful bacteria should be killed in the cooking process. Choosing hot food will reduce your risk of contracting a bacteria that can give you traveller’s diarrhoea.4
Don’t eat food that has been sat around, such as food from a buffet.4 The food can become contaminated whilst sitting there, so it’s safer to eat food prepared before you eat it.
Although you can eat cold food too, aim for foods you can wash yourself to remove the bacteria. Wash or peel raw food such as fruits and veggies, and wash the food with boiled, bottled or disinfected water.4
Avoid ice completely unless you’ve made it yourself from safe water.4 Ice given to you may be made with contaminated water, so adding this to your safe water can be counterproductive in keeping you safe from bacteria.
When should I see a doctor for travellers diarrhoea?
For most people, traveller’s diarrhoea can be managed with over-the-counter medicines, hydration and rest. However, if you have had more than 6 loose bowel movements in 24 hours, passed blood or mucous in your stool, or have consistent vomiting or severe stomach pain, it’s time to seek professional medical help.5
If you cannot keep fluids down or have too many loose bowel movements, you are at risk of suffering from dehydration. You may need intravenous fluids to keep you safe if you are severely dehydrated. If you are at risk of infection, antibiotics may be needed to help you get well again.5
Although you can take all the precautions to keep yourself safe, sometimes, you’ll just get unlucky and contract a bacteria that gives you traveller’s diarrhoea. Whilst definitely unpleasant, usually, it will pass on its own, and you can treat your symptoms at home.
If you develop a more severe traveller’s diarrhoea, don’t hesitate to seek medical intervention. Getting travel insurance before you go to a high-risk area is always a good idea so you aren’t lumped with a hefty medical bill or reluctant to seek the necessary help to get better.
Avoiding dehydration is absolutely key. Stay hydrated, and always drink clean water to prevent reinfection. Having traveller’s diarrhoea doesn’t prevent you from getting it again, so don’t slack off from prevention tactics if you’ve already had it!
Above all, enjoy your travels, experience new things and explore a new culture. Stay safe whilst travelling!