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How to Avoid Getting a Stomach Bug While Traveling Abroad

An unwell woman resting her head on a rolling suitcase at an airport.

Travel opens the door to breathtaking scenery, delicious food, and unique cultural experiences. But it also opens the door to health issues you might not normally have to deal with in your hometown. These tips can help you avoid (or deal with) stomach bugs when you’re on vacation.

One of the most common ailments you might face when you travel is something called “traveler’s diarrhea.” It’s usually caused by drinking contaminated water. Instead of spending your vacation huddled by the toilet, follow these tips to stay healthy and happy on your next trip.

Study Your Location

An Italian hospital.
Dave Ova/Shutterstock.com

As we mentioned, traveler’s diarrhea is typically caused by eating or drinking contaminated food or water. This stomach bug usually isn’t serious, but it can really mess up your vacation. Symptoms include a sudden onset of diarrhea that lasts for days, stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting.

Travelers are most likely to experience this issue in countries with different climates or sanitary practices than their home country. Locals don’t usually get sick because their bodies have built up an immunity to the bacteria that cause stomach upsets. However, while these are harmless to them, they can wreak havoc on you.

According to the Mayo Clinic, residents of the United States are most at risk for digestive issues in Central and South America, Mexico, Africa, and South and Southeastern Asia. Bacteria can lurk anywhere (even in your hometown), but you’ll want to be extra careful when traveling to these parts of the world.

A good way to prepare is to research the country you’re planning to visit in advance. If it’s in one of the aforementioned regions, you now know to avoid certain foods and drinks in that country.

If you’re heading to a country in which there’s any risk of getting sick, you should also buy travel insurance before you go. Find a plan that’ll ensure you can get adequate healthcare should your stomach bug end up being something more serious.

A good travel insurance policy can also help you if you need to shorten or extend your trip for medical reasons. Nomadic Matt’s piece on travel insurance will help you choose the best plan.

Avoid Tap Water

A man uses a LifeStraw water bottle

It might be hard to believe if you live in a country with a clean water system, but many countries do not have the capability to sanitize their tap water. If you’re visiting a country where there’s a risk of traveler’s diarrhea, avoid drinking tap water at all costs.

Buy bottled water when you reach your destination, and make sure all the containers are fully sealed. If you’re worried about not finding safe water, you can also use a LifeStraw water bottle, which kills 99.9% of bacteria and parasites in water. You can also boil water for at least three minutes if you have the capability.

Avoiding tap water also means avoiding ice cubes in restaurants and fruit juice mixed with water. You should also be sure to keep your mouth closed while showering and only brush your teeth with bottled water.

LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottle

Removes 99.99% of waterborne bacteria and parasites, including E. coli, salmonella, giardia, and cryptosporidium.

Eat Carefully

Many parasites and contaminants can hide in food, especially if it’s been prepared poorly. This is true anywhere in the world, so keep your eyes peeled for sanitation red flags at restaurants or street vendors, even when you’re at home.

A good rule of thumb is to eat where the locals do or find well-reviewed places online. Travel sites, like TripAdvisor, offer restaurant reviews from tourists and locals alike.

When you do find somewhere to eat, you can still keep yourself safe by avoiding foods that are typically washed in tap water, like salads, or raw fruits and vegetables. Fruits and veggies are fine, however, if you can peel them yourself.

Unless you’re dining at an establishment you trust, you might also want to avoid eating raw or undercooked meat and fish.

Keep Your Hands Clean

Eight bottles of hand sanitizer and someone holds their hand out

Good hygiene can help you avoid more than a cold (or COVID-19). One of the best ways to avoid getting a stomach bug while traveling is—you guessed it—simply washing your hands frequently. And, of course, you should always do so after using the restroom or touching public surfaces.

Always, always wash your hand before eating. You’d be surprised how many things you touch even as and after you enter a restaurant.

Make sure everyone in your party has some hand sanitizer they can use whenever soap isn’t available. These travel-sized bottles are TSA-approved and can be taken anywhere, regardless of any luggage restrictions you might encounter while traveling.

Purell Advanced Hand Sanitizer Variety Pack

So everyone can have their own.

Prep with Probiotics

Four bottles of probiotics

Probiotics are living microorganisms naturally found in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Probiotic supplements help replace the good bacteria in your body and keep the levels balanced. While taking supplements before you travel won’t guarantee you’ll avoid every stomach bug out there, they might reduce your risk of getting traveler’s diarrhea.

The evidence is still mixed, but some research suggests that certain strains of probiotics including Lactobacillus acidophilus, can be helpful in preventing this kind of stomach upset. NewRhythm Probiotics is well-rated and contains that strain, along with others.

Check with your doctor, and if it gets the okay, start taking it a few weeks before your trip to make sure you don’t experience any side effects. You can also bring it with you on vacation and take it every day during your trip to keep your GI tract happy.

NewRhythm Probiotics

Prep your gut before your trip.

Warning: You should always check with your physician before taking any supplements, particularly if you’re on any medication(s) or have a pre-existing health condition.

Be Prepared for the Worst

Someone packing medication in a travel bag.

If all goes well on your trip, you’ll never have to worry about how to handle a case of traveler’s diarrhea. However, you should be prepared for the possibility and know how to handle it if you accidentally drink from the tap or eat a poorly prepared meal.

Your symptoms should only be severe enough to mess up your plans for a day or two, but it could take up to a week for your symptoms to fully pass. Seek medical care if your symptoms last longer than a week, if you’re experiencing severe pain, or if you have any other concerns about your condition.

For an average stomach bug, you’ll just have to wait out your symptoms until they go away. Be sure to drink plenty of (clean/bottled) water, as vomiting and diarrhea can make you dehydrated.

Try to limit how much you eat and stick with bland foods that digest easily, like rice, bananas, and white bread. You should also avoid taking any long excursions that won’t allow you to have easy access to a restroom until you’re back to 100%.

Antimotility agents, like Pepto Bismol, can help relieve nausea and diarrhea. If you decide you need to see a doctor, he or she might prescribe antibiotics to find the bacteria in your body.

Pepto Bismol Chewables

Manage mild upset-stomach symptoms.

No one wants to find themselves huddled by the toilet during their entire vacation. Unfortunately, this is often a very real concern when traveling outside your home country. These tips will help you stay healthy, so you can enjoy every second of your trip.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Mental Floss and Well + Good, and she recently published her first novel, What it Takes to Lose. When she's not writing, Anne loves to travel (19 countries and counting), spend time outside, and play with her dog, Pepper. Read Full Bio »
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