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Avoiding the dreaded traveler's diarrhea


Traveler’s diarrhea. It’s something not everybody can avoid, no matter how hard they try. But why do some contract this ailment even when taking all the necessary precautions not to?

This is the focus on this week’s “Take Care,” where we talk to Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky about how sometimes, no matter how cautious you might, be “Montezuma’s Revenge” can still strike.

Kozarsky is a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, and medical director of TravelWell, a clinic that serves international travelers. She is also a co-founder of the International Society of Travel Medicine and an expert consultant on travelers’ health with the CDC.

There are more ways to contract traveler’s diarrhea than just drinking from the wrong water source.

“It can be in the water, the food or anything that you ingest. Typically we consider traveler’s diarrhea to be caused by bacteria. Simple bacteria like e-coli, sometimes salmonella, and other bacteria can be caused by viruses and even parasites,” said Kozarsky.

But some people aren’t affected by the sickness at all, and will remain healthy even when eating and drinking the same things as someone who might come down with traveler’s diarrhea.

“It’s just like any other disease. People over time, if constantly exposed to something, our bodies build up a tolerance for it,” said Kozarsky. “And the same thing can happen for the various agents that cause traveler’s diarrhea, you can get them a lot when you’re children, build up anti-bodies and other resistences to them, and be fairly immune from them.”

Kozarsky’s best advice on avoiding traveler’s diarrhea:

  • If something is boiled, then it’s usually fairly clean.
  • If food is steaming as it’s cooked, then it’s usually safe.
  • If food’s served to you or it’s on a buffet where it’s has already been handled by somebody’s hands, then that’s probably not the best idea.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • It is safe to use an antimotility agent such as Imodium.
  • Antibiotics can also be helpful.

Many might think that instead of taking medicine to help treat traveler’s diarrhea, that they should instead let it run its course.
“That’s a common misunderstanding,” said Kozarsky. “One would think that makes sense. But in numerous scientific studies it’s been shown over and over again that since the 1980’s that these drugs do not increase the length of the disease, or make it worse.”

For information and advice on traveler’s diarrhea, visit the CDC's travel website, where travelers can input countries they are visiting and receive information on traveler’s diarrhea and it’s prevention.