With about 4 million overseas journeys being taken by Australians every year, half of them to ‘less-developed’ countries, travellers' diarrhoea is a common problem. Between 25 and 50 per cent of visitors to these countries will experience some sort of stomach upset.
For most people the attack will be mild, only lasting one or 2 days. For others, the problem will be more severe and may ruin a long-awaited expensive holiday.
Before going overseas, many people see the doctor asking for something to take ‘to prevent such an attack’. Unfortunately, there is no magic tablet to stop it happening, but some simple commonsense precautions can make all the difference.
Most attacks of diarrhoea are caused by consuming food and drink that is contaminated by human faecal material. In places where toilet facilities are less hygienic than we are used to, it needs only one kitchen worker to have not washed his or her hands properly after visiting the toilet to cause an outbreak.
Among the rules to follow are:
If, despite taking care, an attack of diarrhoea occurs it can usually be treated with rest, not eating, and taking plenty of fluids. Use bottled water, cans of soft drink or, best of all, one of the brands of rehydration solution (such as Gastrolyte) that are available.
Sometimes tablets, such as Maxolon or Stemetil, are helpful to stop vomiting. Drugs (such as Lomotil or Imodium) aimed at stopping the frequent bowel actions can reduce the inconvenience and embarrassment of the problem. But these drugs must not be used in more severe cases where there is pain, high fever or blood in the stools. By reducing the bowel's activity these drugs can 'lock in' the infecting germs and make matters worse. When symptoms are this severe medical attention should be sought as antibiotic therapy may be needed.
Vaccination against typhoid and hepatitis A is available and probably worthwhile for those going to places where there is a serious risk of these infections. Cholera vaccination is of limited value and is not used very often these days.
If you are planning an overseas trip, discuss your plans with the doctor. Some advance planning might make all the difference to the reasons you remember your holiday.
Last Reviewed: 10 July 2001