Traveler's diarrhea may get better without any treatment. But while you're waiting, it's important to try to stay hydrated with safe liquids, such as bottled water or water with electrolytes such as an oral rehydration solution (see below). If you don't seem to be improving quickly, several medicines are available to help relieve symptoms.
Anti-motility agents. These medicines — which include loperamide and drugs containing diphenoxylate — provide prompt but temporary relief by:
- Reducing muscle spasms in your gastrointestinal tract.
- Slowing the transit time through your digestive system.
- Allowing more time for absorption.
Anti-motility medicines aren't recommended for infants or people with a fever or bloody diarrhea. This is because they can delay clearance of the infectious organisms and make the illness worse.
Also, stop using anti-motility agents after 48 hours if you have stomach pain or if your symptoms worsen and your diarrhea continues. In such cases, see a doctor. You may need blood or stool tests and treatment with an antibiotic.
- Bismuth subsalicylate. This nonprescription medicine can decrease the frequency of your stools and shorten the length of your illness. However, it isn't recommended for children, pregnant women or people who are allergic to aspirin.
- Antibiotics. If you have more than four loose stools a day or severe symptoms, including a fever or blood, pus or mucus in your stools, a doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics.
Before you leave for your trip, talk to your doctor about taking a prescription with you in case you get a serious bout of traveler's diarrhea.
Dehydration is the most likely complication of traveler's diarrhea, so it's important to try to stay well hydrated.
An oral rehydration salts (ORS) solution is the best way to replace lost fluids. These solutions contain water and salts in specific proportions to replenish both fluids and electrolytes. They also contain glucose to enhance absorption in the intestinal tract.
Bottled oral rehydration products are available in drugstores in developed areas, and many pharmacies carry their own brands. You can find packets of powdered oral rehydration salts, labeled World Health Organization (WHO)-ORS, at stores, pharmacies and health agencies in most countries. Reconstitute the powder in bottled or boiled water according to the directions on the package.
If these products are unavailable, you can prepare your own rehydrating solution in an emergency by mixing together:
- 3/4 teaspoon table salt.
- 2 tablespoons sugar.
- 1 quart uncontaminated bottled or boiled water.
- Sugar-free flavor powder, such as Crystal Light (optional).
You or your child can drink the solution in small amounts throughout the day as a supplement to solid foods or formula, as long as dehydration persists. Small amounts reduce the likelihood of vomiting. Breastfed infants also can drink the solution but should continue nursing on demand.
If dehydration symptoms — such as dry mouth, intense thirst, little or no urination, dizziness, or extreme weakness — don't improve, seek medical care right away. Oral rehydration solutions are intended only for urgent short-term use.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If you do get traveler's diarrhea, avoid caffeine, alcohol and dairy products, which may worsen symptoms or increase fluid loss. But keep drinking fluids.
Drink canned fruit juices, weak tea, clear soup, decaffeinated soda or sports drinks to replace lost fluids and minerals. Later, as your diarrhea improves, try a diet of easy-to-eat complex carbohydrates, such as salted crackers, bland cereals, bananas, applesauce, dry toast or bread, rice, potatoes, and plain noodles.
You may return to your normal diet as you feel you can tolerate it. Add dairy products, caffeinated beverages and high-fiber foods cautiously.
Preparing for your appointment
Call a doctor if you have diarrhea that is severe, lasts more than a few days or is bloody. If you are traveling, call an embassy or consulate for help locating a doctor. Other signs that you should seek medical attention include:
- A fever of 102 F (39 C) or higher.
- Ongoing vomiting.
- Signs of severe dehydration, including a dry mouth, muscle cramps, decreased urine output, dizziness or fatigue.
If you have diarrhea and you've just returned home from a trip abroad, share that trip information with your doctor when you call to make an appointment.
Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect.
Information to gather in advance
- Pre-appointment instructions. At the time you make your appointment, ask whether there are immediate self-care steps you can take to help recover more quickly.
- Symptom history. Write down any symptoms you've been experiencing and for how long.
- Medical history. Make a list of your key medical information, including other conditions for which you're being treated and any medicines, vitamins or supplements you're currently taking.
- Questions to ask your health care professional. Write down your questions in advance so that you can make the most of your time.
The list below suggests questions to ask about traveler's diarrhea.
- What's causing my symptoms?
- Are there any other possible causes for my symptoms?
- What kinds of tests do I need?
- What treatment approach do you recommend?
- Are there any possible side effects from the medicines I'll be taking?
- Will my diarrhea or its treatment affect the other health conditions I have? How can I best manage these conditions together?
- What is the safest way for me to rehydrate?
- Do I need to follow any dietary restrictions and for how long?
- How soon after I begin treatment will I start to feel better?
- How long do you expect a full recovery to take?
- Am I contagious? How can I reduce my risk of passing my illness to others?
- What can I do to reduce my risk of this condition in the future?
In addition to the questions that you've prepared, don't hesitate to ask questions as they occur to you during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over points you want to talk about in-depth. Your doctor may ask:
- What are your symptoms?
- When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
- Have you traveled recently?
- Where did you travel?
- Have you taken any antibiotics recently?
- Have your symptoms been getting better or worse?
- Have you noticed any blood in your stools?
- Have you experienced symptoms of dehydration, such as muscle cramps or fatigue?
- What treatments have you tried so far, if any?
- Have you been able to keep down any food or liquid?
- Are you pregnant?
- Are you being treated for any other medical conditions?