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Travellers' Diarrhoea FAQs

The ten most frequently asked questions about diarrhoea

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What is diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea describes the passing of watery stools more than three times a day. It's often caused by a virus or bacteria and can be acute or chronic, lasting more than two or three weeks.

Most people will be affected by diarrhoea at some point in their lives. It's usually caused by drinking a contaminated liquid, eating something that's gone off or is undercooked or through poor hygiene.

How many people are affected by diarrhoea?

At least half of travellers will experience diarrhoea when they're away. Half of European travellers who spend two weeks or more in developing parts of the world are likely to contract it. The chance of you developing diarrhoea varies greatly according to the exotic nature of the destination, the climate and hygiene standards. However, you can develop diarrhoea anywhere in the world, and the bacteria that causes diarrhoea can be found on every corner of the globe.

Across the globe an estimated 10 million people develop diarrhoea, which accounts for somewhere between 20% and 50% of travellers, depending on where they are. Diarrhoea is the most common health problem people face when travelling, and as a result it's an illness that should be taken seriously.

What causes diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea occurs when fluid cannot be absorbed from the bowel contents, or when extra fluid is secreted into the bowel. When travelling, the most common cause of diarrhoea is the different types of bacteria and virus that can be found at any destination. Local drinking water is an obvious risk in many places, which is why tourists will only drink bottled water in certain locations.

Diarrhoea can also be caused by being infected by a more unpleasant bacteria or parasite including cholera, typhoid fever and salmonella.

How dangerous is diarrhoea?

In most cases diarrhoea will clear in a couple of days and isn't too serious. However, it can be fatal: worldwide, seven children die of diarrhoea every minute.

It's possible for a traveller to experience diarrhoea more than once when travelling, but it rarely becomes serious.

What are the symptoms of diarrhoea?

The symptoms of diarrhoea can range from slight watery stools and a brief stomach upset to longer-term symptoms such as extremely watery stools and cramps. The most common symptoms of diarrhoea include cramping stomach pains; an urgent need to go to the toilet; nausea or vomiting; fever; headaches and a loss of appetite.

If you experience diarrhoea for more than two weeks, it's considered chronic and you should see your doctor.

Serious symptoms of diarrhoea include:

  • Blood in the stool
  • Pus in the stool
  • An inability to drink because of vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Drowsiness due to dehydration or intoxication

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should seek medical help immediately.

Where am I likely to get diarrhoea?

The nature of your location, the climate and the hygiene levels of where you're staying can all influence your risk of developing diarrhoea.

If you're holidaying in a country where the food is dramatically different to what you're used to, you're more likely to get diarrhoea. Likewise, if you drink contaminated water, you're more likely to suffer from diarrhoea. High risk areas include South America, Africa, South East Asia and Egypt.

However, it's important to remember that you can develop diarrhoea anywhere in the world, so you should always be prepared for it.

Can I prevent diarrhoea?

You can try to prevent diarrhoea by maintaining a high level of personal hygiene and being careful about what you eat. You should be careful that you eat food that's been properly handled and prepared, choosing the hotels, restaurants and street vendors that look the cleanest. Avoiding raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, raw fruits and vegetables will help you prevent diarrhoea.

When it comes to drinking, you should avoid consuming water straight from the tap or having ice in your drinks. Unpasteurised milk is also known to increase the risk of developing diarrhoea. The safest drinks include bottled carbonated ones like coke or fanta; beer; wine; hot coffee and tea.

How is diarrhoea treated?

When you have diarrhoea, the most important thing is to keep yourself hydrated. Getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluid will help your body fight diarrhoea. With time, the body can heal itself if you rest, drink lots and eat foods like bananas, salted crisps, rice or clear soups.

However, many people don't have the luxury of time because they have lots to do, or need to travel, for example. As a result, many travellers often choose to pack a traveller's diarrhoea pack in case they develop diarrhoea when they're away. These anti-diarrhoea treatments will stop the diarrhoea. Antibiotics can help to treat the diarrhoea if problems persist.

What should I do if I have diarrhoea?

In the majority of cases, diarrhoea is no more than an inconvenience. Usually you will not need to seek medical advice; traveller's diarrhoea packs which contain anti-diarrhoea treatments are often sufficient.

You must ensure that you get enough rest and drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Be careful that you're only drinking safe liquids and avoiding water from the tap if sanitation is a concern. Fruit juice, diluted fruit juice and cola are good things to drink, because they will maintain a level of sugar in the body. It's important you take in salts too; if you feel hungry, the best foods to eat include soups, bananas, salted crisps or rice.

Is diarrhoea a serious disease?

Diarrhoea in itself is rarely serious for travellers; however, it can be symptomatic of other illnesses. If you've spent time in a high risk malaria area, it's important to remember that diarrhoea can be a symptom of malaria.

If you can see blood in your stools, it could be symptomatic of several diseases, which is why you must seek medical help immediately. If you have a high fever, this could also be indicative of another health problem.

It's worth remembering that diarrhoea kills seven children every minute across the globe, so it's not without risk.