Travelers’ Diarrhea Patient Information Fact Sheet

What is travelers’ diarrhea?
Travelers’ diarrhea is, as the name suggests, a diarrheal condition most often experienced while traveling. It is more likely to occur in less developed countries in Africa, Asia and Central and South America, but can also occur in developed countries. In most cases, travelers’ diarrhea is fairly mild and does not last very long. It is not usually severe or life-threatening. However, it can be dangerous in very young children or babies who may become dehydrated within a few hours if the diarrhea is severe, especially if the diarrhea is accompanied by vomiting. It may also be dangerous in the elderly or in people already weakened by another illness.

In most cases the diarrhea resolves without treatment. However, in more serious cases where the diarrhea is caused by infection with a specific organism treatment may be required. “Gastroenteritis” is the term used to describe any infections that cause diarrhea.

For most healthy travelers, diarrhea is a nuisance and uncomfortable, but is rarely a serious health problem. However, for malnourished children in developing countries diarrhea can often be life-threatening and many die each year as a result of severe dehydration.

What are the symptoms of travelers’ diarrhea?
In most cases, the diarrhea, often accompanied by griping abdominal pain, will last 1 or 2 days. If it continues for more than 3 days, or for more than 1 day in a baby, seek medical attention. If there is blood in the diarrhea or a high temperature (fever) is also present, the cause could be more serious.

What different types of organisms are responsible for travelers’ diarrhea?
In 80-90% of cases, travelers’ diarrhea is caused by bacterial pathogens. Most cases are mild and last only a few days. However, certain strains of the bacterium, such as E. coli 0157: H, can potentially cause a very serious, even life-threatening infection. Symptoms include severe, bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. This can be followed by serious organ system damage such as kidney failure. You may be exposed to E. coli from contaminated water or food — especially raw vegetables and undercooked ground beef. While healthy adults usually recover from an E. coli O157:H7 infection with within a week, more vulnerable populations, such as young children and older adults, can develop a life-threatening form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).