Traveler's diarrhea (turista) is characterized by diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting that commonly occur in travelers to areas of the world with poor water purification.
Traveler's diarrhea occurs when people are exposed to bacteria or, less commonly, parasites to which they have had little exposure and thus no immunity. The bacteria (or parasites) are usually acquired from food or water (including water used to wash foods). Traveler's diarrhea occurs mostly in developing countries where the water supply is inadequately treated. The organisms most likely to cause traveler's diarrhea are the types of Escherichia coli (E. coli) that produce certain toxins and some viruses such as norovirus, which has been a particular problem on some cruise ships.
Travelers who avoid drinking local water may still become infected by brushing their teeth with an improperly rinsed toothbrush, drinking bottled drinks with ice made from local water, or eating food that is improperly handled or washed with local water.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Nausea, vomiting, intestinal rumbling, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea can occur in any combination and with any degree of severity. These symptoms begin 12 to 72 hours after ingesting contaminated food or water. Vomiting, headache, and muscle pain are particularly common in infections caused by norovirus. Most cases are mild and disappear without treatment within 3 to 5 days. Diagnostic tests are rarely needed.
Travelers should patronize only those restaurants with a reputation for safety and should not consume any food or beverages from street vendors. Cooked foods that are still hot when served are generally safe. Salads containing uncooked vegetables or fruit and salsa left on the table in open containers should be avoided. Any fruit should be peeled by the traveler. Travelers should drink only bottled carbonated beverages or beverages made with water that has been boiled. Even ice cubes should be made with water that has been boiled. Buffets and fast food restaurants pose an increased risk of infection.
Preventive antibiotics are recommended only for people who are particularly susceptible to the consequences of traveler's diarrhea, such as those whose immune system is impaired. The antibiotic most commonly recommended is ciprofloxacin.
When symptoms occur, treatment includes drinking plenty of fluids and taking antidiarrheal drugs such as loperamide. These drugs cannot be given to people who have a fever or bloody stools or to children under 2 years of age. If diarrhea is more severe (3 or more loose stools over 8 hours), antibiotics are usually recommended (for adults, ciprofloxacin, levofloxacin, azithromycin, or rifaximin; for children, azithromycin). Travelers are encouraged to seek medical care if they develop fever or blood in the stool.
Last full review/revision August 2012 by Thomas G. Boyce, MD, MPH