Staying Healthy While Vacationing: Avoiding Montezuma and All His Wrath
Traveling can do a number on your body. Standing in
long lines, running to catch a bus, or breathing in recycled
airplane air—all this puts your immune system to the test. However,
most travelers dread one particular malady more than others, and
most will suffer its wrath at some point in their travels.
Montezuma's Revenge, Delhi Belly, Malta Dog: no other illness has
been described in such colorful terms as travelers' diarrhea (TD).
We have learned to joke about it, but no one laughs for real when TD
takes up several days of an expensive vacation.
years, this ailment was attributed to too much sun, change in
routine, spicy foods, etc. However, we now know that TD is a result
of a failure in sanitation, leading to bacterial contamination of
food or water. The affliction can affect up to 50 percent of
travelers visiting high-risk areas. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in
Atlanta estimates that over 80 percent of the time, TD is caused by
bacteria such as salmonella, shigella, e. coli, campylobacer, and
staphylococcus. Besides being an unpleasant experience or even
ruining a long-planned vacation, it can, in some cases, lead to
serious medical complications if dehydration occurs.
following tips are recommended to reduce the risk of acquiring this
unwelcome travel souvenir.
By following these measures, travelers can
minimize the risk of TD; unfortunately, the risk never can be
- Avoid ice and all tap water, even to brush your teeth.
(Exception: ice cubes with holes like a donut are made with heated
water and are considered safe.) When selecting beverages, choose
ones that are bottled and preferably carbonated. Carbonation is an
indicator that the beverage has been bottled at a plant and is not
simply rebottled, local tap water. If carbonated beverages are not
available, choose bottled beverages that are sealed.
- Don't drink non-pasteurized milk. In some parts of the world,
milk is diluted with local water (which may be impure). In
addition, fruit juices might be reconstituted with local water,
making them unfit for consumption.
- Don't eat raw or undercooked shellfish
- Avoid foods washed in water, such as leafy, uncooked
vegetables. Any food washed in water might harbor residual
bacteria or parasites and could therefore cause diarrhea.
- Fruit that can be peeled with clean hands should be safe for
- Foods that are freshly cooked and served piping hot are
safest. Cooking kills bacteria. Avoid buffets unless you can be
sure the food has not been sitting out for a long time.
- Avoid roadside stands and street vendors. There is a
notoriously high risk of TD associated with food from these
- When in doubt, heed the old saying, "Boil it, cook it, peel it
- or forget it."
Fortunately, if you do suffer, it is
possible to treat yourself. The key is to keep hydrated. Dehydration
can be serious, especially for infants, children, and the elderly.
To avoid dehydration, drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluid (if you
are passing plenty of pale-colored urine, you are well hydrated; if
there's not much of it, and it's a dark color, you need to drink
more). Eat what you can, but avoid dairy products.
people try to stop diarrhea as soon as it develops. Diarrhea is the
body's way of getting rid of whatever food, virus, or bug that is
causing it. If you are staying in one place for a few days, it's
best to let nature take its course. However, that's not always
possible, especially if you are touring. Try one of the
over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medicines such as Kaopectate®,
Pepto-Bismol®, or Imodium AD®, which can slow down diarrhea and
enable you to resume normal activities sooner. Just follow the
instructions on the label. These medications coat the stomach and
intestinal linings, which may block absorption of prescription drugs
rendering them ineffective. Children, anyone with a medical
condition, and anyone taking prescription medication should seek
their doctor's advice before taking these remedies. Caution should
be used when giving bismuth subsalicylate (the active ingredient in
Pepto-Bismol®) type medications to children due to a potential risk
of Reye's syndrome.
Unfortunately, there are no vaccines
that are effective against TD. There are prescription medications
your doctor can prescribe to help fight off TD; however, they are
not for everyone because of possible side effects. Nonetheless,
there have been controlled studies
showing that bismuth subsalicylate does decrease the incidence of
diarrhea by about 60 percent. Apparently, bismuth subsalicylate
coats the lining of the stomach, which in turn can help block
bacterial absorption. I can personally vouch for this approach.
After consulting my doctor, I've found that taking Pepto-Bismol®
tablets a few days before going on a trip really does help. This
held true last year on our family vacation to Mexico; I was the only
one in my family not to get TD.
Center for Disease Control (CDC):
Provides important information on destination-specific health risks.
You can also call them at 877-FYI-TRIP.
highway to health
(HTH): A service that helps customers get and pay for medical
care when they're traveling. Customers pay an annual membership fee,
which is valid for any trips taken that year. This service also
provides non-members with phone numbers for emergency assistance,
hospitals, and clinics for more than 500 cities.
State Department Medical Information for Americans Traveling
Abroad: Helps locate appropriate medical services for U.S.
citizens traveling abroad. You can call their 24-hour Overseas
Citizen Services at 202-647-5225.
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