Sitting in a café in La Paz, Bolivia, a wave of electric heat shot from my feet to my head. Like some lame version of Spidey sense that only pertained to digestion, I knew something was wrong. Barely making it back to my apartment, I climbed into the shower with fever, dizziness, and the overwhelming urge to puke my guts up and go to the bathroom at the same time. This was the start of my worst bout of travel sickness, which lasted three oh-so-fun weeks.
Considered by some hardcore (and insane) travelers as a rite of passage, travel sickness is also known as traveler’s diarrhea and Montezuma’s Revenge. It occurs when unfriendly bacteria find their way into your stomach via contaminated food or water. The result? A variety of unpleasant symptoms, embarrassing (but funny later) moments, and ruined travel plans.
Let’s take a look what causes travel sickness, how to prevent it, and what you can do if you get it.
What Causes Travel Sickness?
The most common cause of traveler’s sickness is consuming contaminated food or water. Escherichia coli bacteria, better known as E. coli, is usually the culprit of contamination, and it’s spread through unsanitary conditions and a lack of proper water filtration.
Parasites can also cause traveler’s diarrhea. While it’s possible to get those horror-movie parasites like something from Alien, it’s rare. You’re more likely to get the boring microscopic bacteria. Different cause, but the symptoms are the same.
What are the Symptoms of Travel Sickness?
Most stories start the same: “My stomach didn’t feel right…” Travel sickness is one of those things that you just know is happening. The fact that you don’t want to stray too far from a bathroom is your first clue. Here are several common symptoms of traveler’s sickness:
- Three or more loose stools per day
How to Prevent Travel Sickness
Prevention means being less adventurous in your travels, but defense is the best offense:
Wash Your Hands: Wash your hands after being in public places, especially public transportation. I’m not the biggest fan of hand sanitizer, but if there’s no soap, it’s a necessary evil until you can find a proper bathroom.
Avoid Street Food: Exposed to the elements, street food is a breeding ground for bacteria. What’s more, you don’t know when the people who prepared your food last cleaned their hands or washed their utensils. Some backpacker-friendly cities such as Bangkok, Thailand are the exception to the rule. I visited every street food cart I saw on Khao San Road. Surprisingly, many of them had hand sanitizer, food-prep gloves, and coolers packed with ice. I ate from several food carts without an issue. Remember this is the exception, not the norm.
Avoid Buffets: Even in first-world countries, buffet-style food runs the risk of contamination when it’s left out at room temperature for hours and exposed to the germs and dirty habits of other diners. Steer clear of buffets and buffet-style condiments.
Bottle or Boil: Buy bottled water or boil all of the water you drink. To save money and reduce waste, I recommend getting a water filtration pen or bag, which you can use to filter tap or stream water.
Ask for No Ice: When traveling, tap water could be used to make the ice in your drink. Even if it’s hot as hell, don’t take the risk.
Make Sure You Can Peel It: Only buy fruits that you can peel such as bananas or mangoes. For vegetables, I recommend boiling them before eating. If you don’t have access to a stove, avoid veggies until you do.
Cook Your Food: Speaking of boiling…when traveling to different countries, I recommend thoroughly cooking your food. This could mean veggies that are soggy or meat that is tough, but you’ll be able to eat your food without worry. When I was in Bolivia, I cooked a steak the way I do back in the states: medium rare. It was the sole decision that led to my worst case of traveler’s sickness to date.
Take Digestive Enzymes: Did you know that stomach acid does more than digest your food? It also protects you from harmful bacteria. Stress from travel, especially jet lag, can tax your digestive system, making you more susceptible to traveler’s sickness. I recommend giving your tummy a boost with digestive enzyme supplements. They are great for increasing digestion and supporting healthy stomach acid production.
What to Do if You Get Traveler’s Sickness
Maybe it was the ice in your drink at that bar in Cambodia, that cake from the street cart in Argentina, or unknowingly touching your face after being on a bus in India; somehow you got travel sickness. Rest assured that it will pass quickly; most cases only last between 24 and 48 hours. To speed up recovery, here are a few things you can do:
Hydrate: You’ll lose a lot of fluids from going to the bathroom and vomiting. Focus on drinking mineral water or a sugar-free sports drink.
Over-The-Counter Meds: I recommend charcoal capsules to speed up removing the bacteria and toxins. You may also need a fever reducer like ibuprofen. Above all, do not take antibiotics unless you have a specific parasite and it’s been prescribed by a doctor.
Papaya Seeds: If you suspect you have traveler’s sickness caused by a parasite, you can use papaya seeds to rid your body of them. Chew and swallow a tablespoon of papaya seeds with water up to three times per day for several days.
Rest: Your body will need plenty of rest, especially if you have a fever. Light walks are okay, but nothing strenuous.
Be Positive: A healthy and happy mindset can do a lot for bouncing back from traveler’s sickness. You might feel stressed that it’s taking away time from your travels, but try to find a silver lining:
- Catch up on reading that book you’ve been putting off
- Update your travel blog
- Write postcards to friends and family back home
- Plan the next leg of your trip
- Journal about your experience
- Chat with your family
Should You See a Doctor for Traveler’s Sickness?
While most cases of traveler’s sickness go away on their own, you may have to visit a doctor if…
- Symptoms last longer than 14 days with minimal improvement
- You suspect you might have a parasite (rectal itching, stomach pain, extreme fatigue)
- You are severely dehydrated (dark urine, rapid heartbeat, confusion, dry skin)
- You have a fever of 102 (F) or higher that will not subside on its own or with medication
Have You Ever Had Traveler’s Sickness?
Where were you traveling when you got sick? What did you do to get rid of travel sickness? Any tips for travel sickness that I didn’t mention above? Let me know in the comments below.