Traveler's Diarrhea (Adult)

Image of girl showing labeled digestive track, including: esophagus, large intestine, stomach, small intestine, appendix, and rectum.

Traveler's diarrhea is an infection in the digestive tract that's usually caused by bacteria called E coli. This bacteria is commonly found in water supplies of developing countries. The local people of those countries are used to E coli in the water and don't get sick. Tourists who drink contaminated water or eat foods that were washed or prepared with this water may become very ill.

The illness begins 1 to 3 days after exposure and lasts up to 5 days. Symptoms are usually mild. But they can be bothersome and inconvenient, with watery diarrhea and stomach cramping. Sometimes you may have fever or vomiting. You may also have blood or mucus in the stool. Mild cases will get better without treatment. Antibiotics are used for more severe cases.

Home care

  • If you were prescribed antibiotics, take them until they are finished.

  • You may use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to control fever, unless another medicine was prescribed. If you have chronic liver or kidney disease or have ever had a stomach ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding, talk with the healthcare provider before using these medicines. Aspirin should never be used in anyone under 18 years of age who is ill with a fever. It may cause severe illness or death.

  • Don't take over-the-counter medicines for diarrhea, unless advised by the healthcare provider. Never take these kinds of medicine if your diarrhea is bloody.

Once vomiting stops, follow these guidelines:

During the first 12 to 24 hours, follow the diet below:

  • Fruit juices. Apple, grape and cranberry juice, clear fruit drinks, electrolyte replacements, and sports drinks.

  • Beverages. Soft drinks without caffeine, mineral water (plain or flavored), and decaffeinated tea and coffee.

  • Soups. Clear broth, consommé, and bouillon.

  • Desserts. Plain gelatin, popsicles, and fruit juice bars. As you feel better, you may add 6 to 8 ounces of yogurt per day.

During the next 24 hours, you may add the following to the above:

  • Hot cereal, plain toast, bread, rolls, or crackers

  • Plain noodles, rice, mashed potatoes, or chicken noodle or rice soup

  • Unsweetened canned fruit (not pineapple) and bananas

  • Limit how much fat you eat to less than 15 grams per day. Don't have margarine, butter, oils, mayonnaise, sauces, gravies, fried foods, peanut butter, meat, poultry, or fish.

  • Limit fiber. Don't eat raw or cooked vegetables, fresh fruits (except bananas), or bran cereals.

  • Limit caffeine and chocolate. Don't have any spices or seasonings except salt.

During the next 24 hours, you can gradually resume a normal diet as the symptoms lessen.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. Call if you are not getting better within 24 hours or if the diarrhea lasts more than 1 week on antibiotics. If a stool (diarrhea) sample was taken, you may call in 1 to 2 days or as directed for the results.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider if any of these happen:

  • Severe constant pain in the lower part of the belly, on the right side

  • Blood in diarrhea or vomit, dark coffee ground appearing vomit, or dark tarry stools

  • You aren't able to keep liquids down (continued vomiting)

  • Diarrhea that happens more than 5 times a day, or red or black blood or mucus in diarrhea

  • You don't have good appetite

  • You aren't urinating as much as normal or you are very thirsty

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

Call 911

Call 911 if any of the following occur:

  • Weakness, dizziness, or fainting

  • Drowsiness, confusion, stiff neck, or seizure

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