What Is Travelers' Diarrhea?

A bout of diarrhea after traveling can increase the risk of dehydration and other complications.

Vacation is supposed to be a time of rest, but a case of travelers' diarrhea can make your trip a nightmare.

Travelers' diarrhea causes loose, watery stools, usually brought about by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Generally, mild cases of travelers' diarrhea resolve with hydration, rest, and a bland diet. Still, travelers' diarrhea may lead to complications, such as dehydration and malabsorption.

Travelers' diarrhea is one of the most common travel-related illnesses, affecting anywhere from 30% to 70% of travelers. Though travelers' diarrhea can occur anywhere in the world, it is more common when traveling to parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America.

Here, gastroenterologists explain what causes travelers' diarrhea, the symptoms, and how best to treat it so you can enjoy your vacation as much as possible.

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Travelers' Diarrhea Symptoms

Travelers' diarrhea is a form of acute diarrhea that comes on while traveling. Acute diarrhea is sudden loose and watery stools. 

There are different levels of travelers' diarrhea (i.e., mild, acute, and severe). At varying severities, those levels can include symptoms like:

  • Mild cramps
  • Urgent loose stools
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Bloody diarrhea

Symptoms can occur within a few hours to as long as a few weeks depending on the cause of the travelers' diarrhea. Bacterial travelers' diarrhea can last up to seven days. In contrast, viral travelers' diarrhea lasts about three days.

What Causes Travelers' Diarrhea?

Travelers' diarrhea spreads through fecal matter through contaminated food and water. Bacteria, viruses, and parasites cause travelers' diarrhea.

Bacteria account for about 80% to 90% of cases, while viruses make up about 5% to 15%. Less commonly, parasites, also known as protozoal pathogens, can cause travelers' diarrhea. Usually, those parasites are slower to manifest than bacteria and viruses.

Depending on the culprit, travelers' diarrhea may occur through non-inflammatory or inflammatory pathways. Non-inflammatory pathways reduce the ability of your intestines to absorb nutrients. As a result, your waste products increase. In contrast, inflammatory pathways damage your intestines, which increases bowel movements.

Risk Factors

Travelers' diarrhea is more likely to occur if you travel outside the country to a place with poor sanitation. A lack of clean water makes practicing proper hygiene and food preparation hard.

Other risk factors for travelers' diarrhea include:

  • Warm climates
  • A lack of refrigeration
  • Inadequate food storage practices
  • Proton pump inhibitor (PPI) and antibiotic use
  • Unprotected sex
  • Pregnancy
  • Age (i.e., older adults and young children)
  • Health conditions affecting the gastrointestinal (GI) system
  • Weak immune system

Is Travelers' Diarrhea Contagious?

Depending on the culprit, travelers' diarrhea can be contagious. For example, cruise ships are a common culprit of travelers' diarrhea. 

"Cruise ships are known for two viruses specifically that spread like wildfire," Rabia De Latour, MD, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor in the department of medicine at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told Health

Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that causes diarrhea and vomiting. Cruise ships help the virus spread because so many people stay in such proximity, and many people are not great at washing their hands before touching their faces or eating, noted Dr. De Latour.

In contrast, some cases of travelers' diarrhea are not spread between people. For instance, you may develop acute diarrhea because you are not used to the food or water in the place you are traveling.

"There may be different probiotic bacteria that live on lettuce or other foods there that you're just not accustomed to," explained Dr. De Latour. In that case, the diarrhea is about the change in environment, not an infection, and should clear up in a couple of days, added Dr. De Latour.

Traveling can be stressful, especially traveling internationally. For example, your body might respond with loose, watery stool if you are stressed and physically tired after a 12-hour flight. Diarrhea caused by stress isn't infectious and will get better quickly.

How Is Travelers' Diarrhea Diagnosed?

Healthcare providers can diagnose traveler's diarrhea by asking about your symptoms, recent travels outside the country, and what you ate. For example, having acute diarrhea three or more times within 24 hours or double the amount of regular bowel movements may signal travelers' diarrhea. 

A healthcare provider can palpate the stomach to check whether your abdomen is tender. Abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever often accompany acute diarrhea.

Healthcare providers do not usually require laboratory tests or imaging to diagnose travelers' diarrhea. In contrast, a healthcare provider may acquire a stool sample if you have blood in your stool or feel like you need to pass stool even if your bowels are empty. 

In severe cases, a healthcare provider may send for X-rays of the kidneys, ureters, and bladder and an abdominal CT scan.  

Treatments for Travelers' Diarrhea

Treatment for travelers' diarrhea depends on the severity of the case and may include the following:

  • Fluid replenishment: To avoid dehydration, increasing your water intake is essential. Sports drinks and electrolyte mixes can help, too. In contrast, milk and fruit juices can worsen diarrhea, increasing the risk of dehydration. You may require oral rehydration salt or intravenous (IV) fluids to replenish fluids for severe cases. 
  • Anti-diarrheal medicines: A healthcare provider may advise taking an anti-diarrheal like loperamide for mild cases. 
  • Antibiotics: In some cases, a healthcare provider may prescribe a round of antibiotics. Common antibiotics for travelers' diarrhea include ciprofloxacin, azithromycin, and rifaximin. The type of antibiotic may depend on your symptoms and where you are traveling. 

Mainly, mild to moderate cases of travelers' diarrhea involve supportive therapy. For many people with travelers' diarrhea, the illness simply runs its course. 

Try the following to make yourself as comfortable as possible:

  • Hydrate to prevent dehydration.
  • Get lots of rest.
  • Eat small, gentle meals on your stomach, such as salty (e.g., pretzels, crackers, soup, sports drinks) and high-potassium (e.g., bananas, potatoes without the skin, fruit juices) foods.

How To Prevent Travelers' Diarrhea

Preventing travelers' diarrhea can be tricky, especially when traveling abroad. On a cruise ship, one of the best ways to avoid travelers' diarrhea is to watch where you put your hands, wash your hands frequently, and avoid touching your face, advised Dr. De Latour. Steer clear of buffet lines, where someone carrying norovirus could touch the food or serving utensils.

When traveling to underdeveloped countries, be careful what you eat and drink to prevent traveler's diarrhea. In the United States, many people are used to eating pasteurized foods partially sterilized through heat or irradiation. Sometimes, that is different in other countries.

"[G]etting that exposure to a digestive system that has never had an unpasteurized product, we would be very vulnerable," Christine Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told Health. When traveling, be extra careful to check if something is pasteurized before you eat or drink it. You will want to avoid undercooked meats and seafood, too. 

"If you're traveling to an underdeveloped country, that might not be where you want to eat a rare steak," said Dr. Lee. The same goes for sushi made with raw fish or dishes like ceviche or tartare made with raw seafood and meat. Instead, cooked foods are your safest option while traveling anywhere you are unsure how safe the water is.

Fruit and vegetables are risky since they could have been washed in contaminated water. In that case, the fruit you can peel (e.g., bananas or oranges) may be the safest option.  

Finally, paying attention to what you drink is also vital in preventing travelers' diarrhea. Alcohol is considered safe because it can kill bacteria. Likewise, bottled drinks are safe if they have an unbroken seal. Boiled water is your next safest bet if those options are not available. 

Remember that contaminating water can get into your mouth in other ways, like showering and swimming. Try not to swallow during those times, brush your teeth with bottled water, and avoid ice in drinks, advised Dr. Lee.

Finally, a healthcare provider may advise taking precautions if traveling outside the country. For example, you might take two tabs of bismuth subsalicylate four times daily to decrease the risk of travelers' diarrhea. Usually, healthcare providers do not advise bismuth subsalicylate for pregnant people and children. 

A healthcare provider may recommend a round of antibiotics to prevent travelers' diarrhea if you are traveling to a high-risk area for a short period.


Most people with travelers' diarrhea make full recoveries. In rare, severe cases, complications can occur. For example, dehydration is one of the most common complications of travelers' diarrhea. Dehydration happens if you lose too many fluids through acute diarrhea, requiring immediate medical attention.

Other complications of travelers' diarrhea may include:

  • Malabsorption: This happens if the small intestine cannot absorb enough nutrients.
  • Sepsis: This is an infection that develops secondary to an existing one. Sepsis causes inflammation, which leads to organ damage and failure and, in some cases, death. 
  • Hemolytic uremic syndrome: This occurs if an infection damages the blood vessels in your kidneys.
  • Reactive arthritides: Some infections may cause painful and swollen joints.

Typically, those complications are more common in older adults and children younger than 4 than others.

Coping With Travelers' Diarrhea

To manage travelers' diarrhea, follow a healthcare provider's advice and treatment plan. Other steps to keep comfortable while your symptoms resolve include staying hydrated and practicing proper hygiene, such as handwashing

Mostly, people with travelers' diarrhea only require emergency medical attention if they are dehydrated. Consult a healthcare provider if your symptoms do not subside after 10 days.

A Quick Review

Travelers' diarrhea causes acute diarrhea that comes on while traveling. You can avoid travelers' diarrhea as much as possible by watching what you eat and drink while traveling outside the country. To treat mild cases, staying hydrated is essential. 

Although you are at risk for diarrhea when traveling, it should not be scary. South America, Central America, Mexico, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia offer unique, enriching experiences worth the risk.

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3 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Connor BA. Travelers' diarrhea. In: Travelers' Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2020.

  2. Dunn N, Okafor CN. Travelers diarrhea. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2023.

  3. MedlinePlus. Traveler's diarrhea diet.

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