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First, you should be healthy when you leave on your trip. A last minute cold aside, you don’t want to be climbing on a plane if you have the flu or some serious illness. That seems obvious, but people do it all the time. Not only will you be miserable, but you might be infecting others on the plane with you.
Most people can leave on a trip without consulting their doctor, but for some itineraries it’s wise to get a check-up. If you’re planning a trip to an exotic location, meet with your regular doctor or your travel medicine doctor.
Do you need vaccinations?
Find out if you need any vaccinations or medications for your trip. Your doctor can probably give you a prescription for a broad spectrum antibiotic and give you instructions on how to take it in case you get diarrhea.
If you have some health issues, like a heart condition or something that limits you, discuss with your doctor the proper care you should take for those conditions to keep your travel healthy.
Make sure your teeth are in good shape too. If you’ve had some little pains in a tooth, go get it checked out. My spouse had resisted getting a wisdom tooth extracted for years. It had broken, but didn’t bother her. She started having “twinges” on that side of his mouth, but she was sure it go away. I told her it was probably that tooth, and it would probably blow up on her when she was on the plane! Turns out the tooth had decayed since her last check-up, but she got the tooth extracted (no problems!), and we had a great trip.
Be sensible about what you eat and drink on your travels. Eat what you like, but if things look unhygienic, you might want to take a pass. If food looks like it’s been sitting out for the flies for a few hours, you wouldn’t want to eat it anyway.
Try to eat nutritiously. If you have a dietary restriction, try to learn how to say it in the local language (or get it written down). And let the restaurants know: ask if they can help you if you need to avoid something for health reasons.
If you have serious food allergies, like allergies to shellfish or peanuts, you should carry an EpiPen or its equivalent. Of course you’ll try to avoid the culprit, but in a foreign country, you may not get your point across, so it’s better to be prepared. A precaution like this not only keeps your travel healthy, it could keep you alive!
Drink bottled water in places where the water isn’t safe. It is usually pretty easy to tell where that is. Drink tea or coffee made with boiled water, or drink bottled or canned soft drinks, beer or wine.
You have to watch your own hygiene as well as the water and the food. Make sure your hands are clean. Wash them before eating or use those hand sanitizers that are available now. They come in small packets that you can take in your carry on luggage.
Get in shape for your trip so you’ll feel good about all that walking and all those stairs. Try to get plenty of exercise when you’re on your trip. And get plenty of sleep.
Sure you want to run around and not miss anything, but if you’re going to travel healthy, you need to rest. That way you will be able to keep going, and you will see it all.
OK, we might as well talk about it and not mince words.
The trots, Delhi belly, Montezuma’s revenge, tourista: call it what you will, if you travel you may have to put up with this one day.
Country and city names aside, you can get diarrhea anywhere. It may be the water, even if it isn’t dirty or contaminated. Water away from home contains different minerals and bacteria than your water at home and it doesn’t matter where home is or where you travel. Americans travelling to Mexico may worry about Montezuma’s revenge, but we’ve talked to Mexican tourists who got tourista in California!
There are countries where you shouldn’t drink the water. Hotels in those countries will usually provide complimentary bottled water in your room. (Double-check before you just assume this though, both whether the water is safe and if the bottle is complimentary.)
If in doubt, stick to bottled water: it is better to be safe than sick. As I’ve said, beer, wine, bottled soft drinks, boiled coffee and tea are also safe to drink but skip the ice cubes.
You can get intestinal troubles from the food as well as the water. It all depends on what your body can put up with.
To be really safe, the tried and true travellers’ rule is to eat food only if it’s peeled or boiled or well cooked. Unfortunately that is a rule, I’m afraid to say, we break more often than we should. We do eat at street stalls if they look clean – but you never know what microbes are lurking …
We also eat salads even on safari or in the jungle or travelling overland in India or Tibet. Sometimes it’s a matter of “what else can you do”. For all the fun experiences we have being this adventurous, we haven’t had all that many bouts with “the revenge”.
We had an old doctor tell us that one of the best ways to ease your digestive system into the local cuisine was to eat things that are acidy and yeasty. He suggested beer and yogurt. The yogurt abroad has enzymes that can help. I don’t know how much the beer it helps, but it’s fun to try all the local brands, and it’s always safe when the water isn’t.
The causes of diarrhea are just as likely be the stress of travel, the fact that you’re overtired and jet-lagged, and that your immune system is worn down, so it may not be the food or the water at all.
If you do get diarrhea, it will usually run its course in short order. Eat bland foods, and take it easy for a day. Drink plenty of water to replace lost fluids and avoid dehydration. You can take your diarrheals to help slow those trots down and start you feeling better as long as you don’t have a fever or blood in your stools.
Gross as it sounds, I had an attack when we were walking the Vietnamese city of Hoi An. Our driver wasn’t coming back for a couple of hours, so I told our guide every time I had to “make a dash”. She seemed to know people everywhere, and I was graciously allowed into the back room of businesses and several private homes to … use the facilities. I wasn’t too happy at the time, but in retrospect, I had a tour like no other! What a story, eh?
To re-emphasize: if the condition persists, if you’re running a high fever, or if you have blood in your stool, you should see a doctor and get antibiotics.
Try to be smart about what you eat and drink. Even then you may get “tripped up”. You’ll soon be over it and maybe you’ll have stories to tell too.
The flip side of travellers’ diarrhea is constipation. While the old scourge of “tourista” gets most of the publicity, so to speak, constipation is almost as prevalent among travellers and for some of the same reasons. No, it probably won’t be the water, but it can be the jet lag and the diet that bind you up.
Being tired from not sleeping well on the plane, being dehydrated, the stress of travel all add to your problem. But wait, you’re saying, I thought those caused diarrhea! Yep, they can cause both, depending on all the other circumstances, and depending on your body. What gives some people the runs, clogs up others.
It may be that you traded off your usual fiber-fortified morning cereal for a fiber-free continental breakfast. Too much refined bread and the cheeses that go with it can be the culprit. My grandmother used to say, “Eat cheese, it’s binding.”
I used to love all those new breads and cheeses to sample for breakfast when we travel, but now I try to eat those “active enzyme yogurts” before we travel, and I look for yogurt and fiber-rich foods at the breakfast buffet.
Our bodies are conditioned to the clock (and your body clock is off if you’ve passed over several time zones), so for a couple of days after you arrive at your destination your body (and your bowels) can’t figure out when it’s supposed to work.
When the urge hits, don’t ignore it. Not going will just block things up more later, so do your best to find a toilet. Eventually your body will get on a schedule in your new time zone.
Remember to call it a toilet or WC. Calling it a restroom will only confuse people in many countries. And speaking of the facilities: Sometimes the strange bathroom facilities can cause travelers’ constipation in some people.
Those facilities may not be as clean as you’re used to or you could encounter one of those “hole-in-the-ground toilets” instead of “the porcelain throne”. Some people just can’t go when the facilities are so different. I guess you’d better be looking for higher end (so to speak) hotels where things are more apt to be what you’re used to.
When you go on vacation, you probably drink more alcohol than you do at home. Alcohol can dehydrate you, and that can make you more apt to suffer irregularity.
Drink plenty of water and fruit juices. Try to keep meals on a regular schedule, and try to eat plenty of raw fruits and leafy vegetables. Go for the prunes, granola, and yogurt if you get the chance at breakfast. You might want to try taking packets of a fiber supplement like Metamucil along.
And get plenty of exercise. It’ll help get things moving again.
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