Have you already planned a winter holiday? Besides getting your passport and appropriate currency, you need to think of getting your vaccinations updated and take actions to prevent traveler’s diarrhea (TD).
TD hits your system when you consume contaminated food and water. It occurs during or shortly after travel, most commonly affecting persons traveling from an area of more highly developed hygiene and sanitation to a less developed one. Food and water may be contaminated with bacteria, parasites or viruses. A similar but less common syndrome is toxic gastroenteritis, caused by ingestion of pre-formed toxins.
Studies have shown bacteria are responsible for approximately 85 per cent of TD, parasites about 10 per cent, and viruses five per cent. On average, 30-50 per cent of travelers to high-risk areas will develop TD during a one to two-week stay.
TD is generally self-limited and lasts 3-4 days even without treatment, but persistent symptoms may occur in a small percentage of travelers. Any diarrhea associated with fever and blood in the toilet requires medical attention.
Infectious diarrhea can have a long term effect on our system resulting in arthritis, Guillain-Barré syndrome (a reversible condition that affects the nerves in the body), and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS may occur in up to 30 per cent of persons who contracted travelers’ diarrhea or infectious diarrhea. Research is going on to determine if post-infectious IBS can lead to inflammatory bowel disease.
IBS is a complex disorder clinically characterized by abdominal pain and altered bowel habit. Its causative mechanisms are still incompletely known. It could be a person’s genes, psychosocial factors, changes in gastrointestinal motility and hypersensitivity of certain organs in the body.
TD can be self-limiting benign condition or may result in serious sequalae. So it is no rocket science to conclude that we should try and prevent TD by taking necessary preventive measures. Travelers should remember to wash their hands with soap and water prior to eating or meal preparation.
Eat foods that are freshly cooked and served piping hot and you should avoid water and beverages diluted with non-potable water. Foods like salads are washed in non-potable water. You should avoid that. Raw or undercooked meat and seafood and raw fruits and vegetables should be avoided. Safe beverages include those that are bottled and sealed or carbonated. Consumption of food or beverages from street vendors poses a particularly high risk.
What kind of medications can you use as prophylaxis against TD?
Studies from Mexico have shown Pepto-Bismol (taken on arrival at the destination as either two oz. of liquid or two chewable tablets four times per day) reduces the incidence of TD from 40 to 14 per cent, says one research paper. You should make sure that Pepto-Bismol is compatible with other medications you take. There is no conclusive evidence that use of probiotics is helpful.
E. coli is the most common type of bacteria which causes TD. Use of oral Dukoral vaccine (two weeks and one week before travel) provides protection against E. coli diarrhea for three months.
Use of prophylactic antibiotics has been demonstrated to be quite effective in the prevention of TD. Studies have shown that attacks of diarrhea are reduced from 40 per cent to 4 per cent by the use of antibiotics. But it is becoming difficult to decide which antibiotic to use as bacteria tend to develop resistance to antibiotics. For this and other reasons, prophylactic antibiotics should not be recommended for most travelers.
Three months before you travel, you should visit your family doctor and local public health nurse and discuss your travel plans. They will provide you with the most advanced information on how to have a healthy and happy holiday.
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