Traveller's Diarrhoea Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Authored by , Reviewed by Dr Colin Tidy | Last edited | Meets Patient’s editorial guidelines

Added to Saved items
This article is for Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Traveller's Diarrhoea article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

Read COVID-19 guidance from NICE

Treatment of almost all medical conditions has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. NICE has issued rapid update guidelines in relation to many of these. This guidance is changing frequently. Please visit https://www.nice.org.uk/covid-19 to see if there is temporary guidance issued by NICE in relation to the management of this condition, which may vary from the information given below.

See the separate Gastroenteritis in Adults and Older Children, Gastroenteritis in Children, Childhood Diarrhoea, Salmonella Gastroenteritis, Campylobacter Enteritis, Shigellosis, Norovirus, Rotavirus and Rotavirus Vaccination, Giardiasis, Escherichia Coli O157 articles.

Traveller's diarrhoea is a general term applied to the common problem of diarrhoeal illness experienced by travellers, usually in the first week or two of a stay in a foreign environment. Traveller's diarrhoea encompasses diarrhoea caused by numerous enteropathogens (bacteria, parasites and viruses) picked up from contaminated food and water in the new, foreign environment. Traveller's diarrhoea remains a major public health problem with significant morbidity.

Traveller's diarrhoea has been defined as "an increase in frequency of bowel movements to three or more loose stools per day during a trip abroad, usually to a less economically developed region".[1]

It is estimated that 20-60% of travellers will be affected by traveller's diarrhoea around the world. Traveller's diarrhoea particularly affects those who travel from industrialised countries to developing countries, especially tropical and semi-tropical destinations. The risk and aetiology are determined by the place of destination. The pathogen is often not determined but, where it is, the most common cause is one of a number of bacteria. Globally, enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli is the most common bacterial cause, with Campylobacter jejuni and Salmonella and Shigella species also often culprits. Rotaviruses and noroviruses are also common causes. Protozoa such as Giardia lamblia or Cyclospora spp. are more likely to cause persistent diarrhoea, lasting over two weeks.

Information about level of risk in individual destinations is available on the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) website.[2]

High-risk areas: South and Southeast Asia, Central America, West and North Africa, South America, East Africa. (C. jejuni infection is more common in Southeast Asia, whereas E. coli is more common in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. Norovirus is common in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and parasitic infection is more common in South and Southeast Asia.)

Intermediate-risk areas: Russia, China, Caribbean, South Africa.

Low-risk areas: North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Other than geography, other risk factors include:

  • Age less than 6 years.
  • Nature of trip (certain types of trip carry higher risk - eg, cruise ship holidays, holiday resorts, backpacking).
  • Taking acid suppressant medication: H2-receptor antagonists or proton pump inhibitors (PPIs).[3]
  • Abnormal upper gastrointestinal anatomy.
  • Genetic factors.

These will be, to some extent, consistent with the pathogen responsible.

  • Most pathogens cause mild self-limiting diarrhoea for less than 72 hours.
  • Diarrhoea lasting for longer than 14 days suggests more unusual organisms and testing for Giardia, Entamoeba, Cyclospora and Cryptosporidium species is required.
  • Bloody diarrhoea (dysentery) occurs more commonly with some pathogens (Salmonella, Shigella and Campylobacter species). Some pain may accompany infection with Campylobacter spp.
  • Diarrhoea caused by enterotoxigenic E. coli is usually watery and profuse. It may be preceded by abdominal pains, nausea and general malaise.
  • G. lamblia is often associated with bloating and burping.
  • In children aged under 5 years rotavirus is a common pathogen.

However, it is not possible to make a reliable diagnosis from the history alone.

Further assessment

A more detailed assessment of the illness is required and this should include travel details.

  • Travel details help the diagnostic process:
    • Place of travel and the level of risk for the particular destination. Knowledge of the local disease prevalence and conditions is required.
    • Purpose of travel, including information on conditions of stay (including dietary habits).
    • A medication history noting whether chemoprophylaxis of any variety has been taken.
    • Whether other travellers are affected and details if so.
  • Examination:
    • General observations including whether drowsy or alert.
    • Level of hydration (and whether the patient is shocked) - eg, skin turgor, mucous membranes and pulse and blood pressure.
    • Temperature.
    • Abdominal examination, especially looking for the presence of a surgical abdomen.

Diagnosis will not generally be difficult; however, other causes of diarrhoea should be borne in mind (see separate Gastroenteritis in Adults and Older Children and Gastroenteritis in Children articles).

Investigation may be required if traveller's diarrhoea persists for more than 14 days, or earlier if there is blood in the stool, fever or more severe illness.

  • Blood tests: FBC, U&Es, LFTs, ESR and CRP.
  • Stool culture including microscopy, culture and sensitivity and tests for ova, cysts and parasites.
  • Additional stool tests may be done, according to history and travel destination, whether stool is bloody, whether recent antibiotics have been taken, in young children aged under 5 (rotavirus).
  • Clostridium difficile toxin may be tested for if the patient has recently been in hospital or has taken broad-spectrum antibiotics in the preceding six weeks.
  • Further investigation with imaging or endoscopy may be required if there is severe tenderness or there are signs of severe colitis.
  • One study found that a raised CRP and faecal white cells were associated with bacterial infection but not parasitic infection.[4]

The vast majority of traveller's diarrhoea cases will be managed at home with oral rehydration. Most are self-limiting illnesses, which do not require medical intervention. However, it is important to identify patients who should be managed differently. The state of hydration will need monitoring in all patients but particularly those with more severe symptoms and those at risk of dehydration.

Oral rehydration and home monitoring

This is appropriate for low-risk patients with mild or no dehydration and mild symptoms, who have favourable home circumstances. The young, the elderly and other higher-risk patients should be monitored particularly closely.

Oral rehydration and consider admission

Mild-to-moderate dehydration can often be managed at home if all other factors are favourable and the patient can be reviewed. In patients at risk of worsening dehydration with severe symptoms or with other risk factors (the young, the elderly, those with immunosuppression or other comorbid conditions), admission should be considered.

Referral for possible admission in children should be considered for:[5]

  • Children younger than 1 year, particularly those younger than 6 months.
  • Infants who were of low birth weight.
  • Children who have passed more than five diarrhoeal stools in the previous 24 hours.
  • Children who have vomited more than twice in the previous 24 hours.
  • Children who have not been offered or have not been able to tolerate supplementary fluids before presentation.
  • Infants who have stopped breastfeeding during the illness.
  • Children with signs of malnutrition.

Anti-motility medication[6]

Symptomatic treatment may be needed for logistical reasons, particularly whilst travelling. There is more evidence for efficacy and safety of loperamide; however, bismuth subsalicylate may also be used. Neither should be used if the stool contains blood or mucus, or if there is fever, and they should not be used for more than two days. Anti-motility medication is not recommended for children. (Loperamide should be avoided in those under the age of 12, and bismuth subsalicylate under the age of 16.)

Antibiotics[6]

Ideally where it is needed, antibiotic therapy should be guided by microbiology advice, with the benefit of the results of the stool sample and sensitivities determined thereby. Where empirical treatment is needed, azithromycin is particularly useful if there is severe traveller's diarrhoea, dysentery, high fever, and travel to South and Southeast Asia (unlicensed use). The standard dose is 500 mg daily for three days in adults and children over 45 kg.Azithromycin is also used where quinolones are contra-indicated, such as in pregnant women or children.

Fluoroquinolones are effective in much of the developing world, but their potential use is limited due to increasing fluoroquinolone resistance in Campylobacter, Shigella, and Salmonella species, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, where a significant proportion of traveller's diarrhoea is due to Campylobacter. Fluoroquinolones also may be less effective in cases of dysentery as these may be caused by a fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter or Shigella species. Concerns have been raised about the adverse effect profile of fluoroquinolones, including tendon rupture, C. difficile infection, and prolongation of the QT interval.

Rifaximin may be an option for the treatment of traveller's diarrhoea that is not associated with fever, bloody diarrhoea, blood or leukocytes in the stool. It has similar efficacy to fluoroquinolones in non-invasive traveller's diarrhoea but is not effective for treating diarrhoea caused by invasive enteric pathogens such as Salmonella, Shigella, or Campylobacter

Studies show these antibiotics reduce the course from an average of three days to an average of 1.5 days.[1]

Traveller's diarrhoea is typically self-limiting and serious complications are unusual. The most significant effect is that of the illness itself and the associated morbidity and disability. By definition it can be disruptive to people travelling for whatever reason, whether for holiday or business. Complications associated with dehydration may occur in severe cases, and other unusual sequelae include toxic megacolon, hepatic abscess, sepsis and bowel perforation.

Postinfectious irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) occurs in up to 30% of cases.[7]

Food and drink hygiene advice

Although there is no evidence that advice on safe eating and drinking affects the rate of traveller's diarrhoea, it is known that most cases come from food or drink. Therefore advice about the following remains standard for travel to high-risk countries:

  • Boil or otherwise purify drinking water. Use only bottled or boiled water for ice cubes, brushing teeth and washing food.
  • Eat only thoroughly cooked food.
  • Avoid raw seafood.
  • Peel fruit and vegetables before eating them.
  • Be wary of food in markets or buffets, which has been out for some time.
  • Avoid ice cream, unless from a reliable source.
  • Wash hands regularly, particularly when handling food or eating and after using the toilet, etc.

Chemoprophylaxis

For most people antibiotic prophylaxis is not recommended, due to the self-limiting nature of the illness and the side-effects and resistance potential of treatment. It should be considered for people at high risk of getting traveller's diarrhoea and who are vulnerable to complications. For example, those travelling to high-risk areas and who are likely to contract infection through the type of trip, who are:

  • Immunosuppressed (on chemotherapy or other immunosuppressant medication, those with advanced HIV).
  • At high risk of complications (eg, those with gastrointestinal abnormality or disease).
  • Vulnerable due to age (babies, infants, frail elderly) or comorbidity.
  • Undergoing a critical trip where the illness would have a severe impact on the purpose of the trip.

Where continuous antibiotic prophylaxis is advisable, specialist advice should be sought. Options which have some evidence of effectiveness include ciprofloxacin and rifaximin .

Standby antibiotics

It may be helpful for some people travelling to high-risk or medium-risk countries to have a supply of "in case" antibiotics to take should they develop traveller's diarrhoea. This may be particularly helpful for those who are going to be in remote areas with poor sanitation and lack of access to healthcare, or for those who are trekking or travelling continually. A short course of antibiotics is known to reduce the length of the illness. Choice of antibiotic will depend on the area and likely risks and resistance, as well as individual age, pregnancy status and comorbidity.

Because of the complexity of the situation, seek specialist advice if considering prescribing a 'stand-by' antibiotic. The National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) provides a telephone advice line for health professionals advising travellers with complex itineraries or specialist health needs. For more information, see the NaTHNaC website.[2]

Other options[9]

There is some evidence that probiotics may help prevent traveller's diarrhoea[10, 11] . However, it is not yet known which preparation and what dose are optimal and these are not currently a standard recommendation.

Collaboration between local governments and public health researchers could improve hygiene in high-risk areas and reduce risk to travellers.

Vaccines and immunoprophylaxis may be helpful in certain circumstances . Vaccines are available for Salmonella typhi and rotavirus. An efficient cholera vaccine is available and gives some cross-protection against E. coli enterotoxin. It is, however, only marginally effective against traveller's diarrhoea. One study reported that ten people would need to be vaccinated to prevent one case of traveller's diarrhoea.[12] The typhoid vaccine is currently the only one routinely recommended for travellers. Vaccines against enterotoxigenic E. coli are in development and are a World Health Organization (WHO) priority.[13]

Are you protected against flu?

See if you are eligible for a free NHS flu jab today.

Check now

Further reading and references

  1. Barrett J, Brown M; Travellers' diarrhoea. BMJ. 2016 Apr 19353:i1937. doi: 10.1136/bmj.i1937.

  2. Travellers' diarrhoea; TravelHealthPro - the website comprising the resources of the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC)

  3. Bavishi C, Dupont HL; Systematic review: the use of proton pump inhibitors and increased susceptibility to enteric infection. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2011 Dec34(11-12):1269-81. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2036.2011.04874.x. Epub 2011 Oct 17.

  4. McGregor AC, Whitty CJ, Wright SG; Geographic, symptomatic and laboratory predictors of parasitic and bacterial causes of diarrhoea in travellers. Trans R Soc Trop Med Hyg. 2012 Sep106(9):549-53. doi: 10.1016/j.trstmh.2012.04.008. Epub 2012 Jul 20.

  5. Diarrhoea and vomiting in children under 5; NICE Clinical Guideline (April 2009)

  6. Diarrhoea - prevention and advice for travellers; NICE CKS, February 2019 (UK access only)

  7. Schwille-Kiuntke J, Mazurak N, Enck P; Systematic review with meta-analysis: post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome after travellers' diarrhoea. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2015 Jun41(11):1029-37. doi: 10.1111/apt.13199. Epub 2015 Apr 13.

  8. DuPont HL, Ericsson CD, Farthing MJ, et al; Expert review of the evidence base for prevention of travelers' diarrhea. J Travel Med. 2009 May-Jun16(3):149-60. doi: 10.1111/j.1708-8305.2008.00299.x. Epub 2009 Mar 19.

  9. Leung AKC, Leung AAM, Wong AHC, et al; Travelers' Diarrhea: A Clinical Review. Recent Pat Inflamm Allergy Drug Discov. 201913(1):38-48. doi: 10.2174/1872213X13666190514105054.

  10. McFarland LV; Meta-analysis of probiotics for the prevention of traveler's diarrhea. Travel Med Infect Dis. 2007 Mar5(2):97-105. Epub 2005 Dec 5.

  11. Guandalini S; Probiotics for prevention and treatment of diarrhea. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2011 Nov45 Suppl:S149-53. doi: 10.1097/MCG.0b013e3182257e98.

  12. Lopez-Gigosos R, Campins M, Calvo MJ, et al; Effectiveness of the WC/rBS oral cholera vaccine in the prevention of traveler's diarrhea: A prospective cohort study. Hum Vaccin Immunother. 2013 Jan 169(3).

  13. Bourgeois AL, Wierzba TF, Walker RI; Status of vaccine research and development for enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli. Vaccine. 2016 Mar 15. pii: S0264-410X(16)00287-5. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2016.02.076.

newnav-downnewnav-up