The occurrence of multiple loose bowel movements in someone traveling to an area outside of their usual surroundings (usually from temperate industrialized regions to tropical areas), is known as traveler’s diarrhea (TD). The cause is almost always due to a bacterial or viral infection, acquired through ingesting contaminated food or water.
It is estimated that anywhere from 20–50% of the 12–20 million travelers going from temperate industrialized countries to the tropics will develop TD. Fortunately, most of these episodes are of short duration; nevertheless, about 40% of those affected will need to rearrange their schedule, and 20% will be ill enough to remain in bed for some days.
The chance of winding up with TD is directly related to the area one is traveling to; only about 8% of individuals visiting an industrialized country are affected, whereas at least half of those traveling to non-industrialized regions become ill. It is also clearly related to the number of potentially contaminated foods or beverages consumed. Attention to recommended guidelines regarding food safety and sanitation can greatly decrease the risk of infection.
Causes and symptoms
Bacterial infections are the most common cause of the illness. Viruses and occasional parasites can also be the cause. As for the bacteria involved, toxin producing types of E. coli (called enterotoxigenic) account for approximately 40–60% of cases, with Campylobacter and Shigella each reported in at least 10% of cases. In some studies, Campylobacter has accounted for almost half of the attacks, especially during cooler seasons of the year. The cause can vary depending on several factors, including the season and country visited. More than one organism can be found in 15–30% of cases, and none is identified in up to 40% of cases worldwide.
Rotaviruses and a parvovirus called Norwalk agent are also responsible for TD. Giardia is probably the most common parasite identified, though amoebas (Entamoeba histolytica), Cryptosporidium, and Cyclospora are being found with increasing frequency. Younger age groups, particularly students, are at greatest risk, probably because of where and what they eat. Individuals over 55 years of age, persons staying with relatives or business travelers are at lower risk. Foods with the highest chance of transmitting disease are uncooked vegetables, unpeeled fruits, meat, and seafood. Tap water and even ice can be dangerous unless one is sure of the source.
Symptoms usually start within a few days after arrival, but can be delayed for as long as two weeks. Illness lasts an average of three to five days, but is sometimes longer. Cramping abdominal pain, lack of appetite, and diarrhea are the main complaints. In approximately 10% of patients, diarrhea turns bloody and fever develops in about half of those. The presence of bloody bowel movements and fever usually indicates a more severe form of illness and makes Shigella a more likely cause. Medications that decrease the motility or contractions of the intestine, such as loperamide or diphenoxylate, should not be used when fever or bleeding occur.
Diarrhea varies from a few loose stools per day to 10 or more. Dehydration and changes in the normal blood pH (acid-base balance) are the main dangers associated with TD. Signs of dehydration can be hard to notice, but increasing thirst, dry mouth, weakness or lightheadedness (particularly if worsening while standing), or a darkening/decrease in urination are suggestive. Severe dehydration and changes in the body’s chemistry can lead to kidney failure and become life-threatening. Another potential complication is “toxic megacolon,” in which the colon gradually stretches and its wall thins to the point where it can tear. The presence of a hole in the intestine leads to peritonitis and is fatal unless quickly recognized and treated. Other complications related to TD can involve the nervous system, skin, blood, or kidneys.
The occurrence of diarrhea in an individual while traveling is very suggestive of TD. Although there are other possible causes, these are less likely. In most instances, the specific organism responsible for the symptoms does not need to be identified, and the majority of patients need only rest and treatment to avoid potential complications.
When patients develop fever or bloody diarrhea, the illness is more serious and a specific diagnosis is needed. In those cases, or when symptoms last longer than expected, stool samples are obtained to identify the organism. For this purpose, laboratories can either try to grow (culture) the organism, or identify it with high-powered microscopes (electron microscopy) or with the use of special tests or stains. These can show parasites such as Giardia, Amoeba, Cryptosporidium and others in freshly obtained stool specimens. New techniques that involve identification of DNA (the characteristic material that controls reproduction and is unique for all individuals) of the various organisms, can also be used in special circumstances.
The best treatment of TD is prevention; however, once disease occurs, therapy is aimed at preventing or reducing dehydration, and using antibiotics when needed. Fortunately, severe dehydration is unusual in patients with TD, but any fluid losses should be treated early with either fruit juices or “clear fluids” such as tea or broth, or with the recommended Oral Rehydration Solutions (ORS) suggested by the World Health Organization (WHO). Persons traveling to known areas of infection should consult with their physician prior to departure and obtain appropriate instructions. For example, it may be advised to take along pre-prepared packets of ORS designed for easy mixing or commercial preparations.
When nothing else is available, the following WHO recipe can be made up from household items and taken in small frequent sips;
• Table salt: 3/4 teaspoon.
• Baking powder: 1 teaspoon.
• Orange juice: 1 cup.
• Water: 1 quart or liter.
A debate has occurred in the medical community the amount of salt (sodium) in the WHO preparations; some physicians feel that the content is too much for use by well-nourished persons in developed countries. Therefore these preparations should not be used for extended periods of time without consulting a physician. Bismuth subsalicylate preparation is effective in both preventing and treating TD. For treatment once symptoms begin, the drug must be taken more frequently than when used for prevention. Bismuth subsalicylate preparation (1 oz of liquid or two 262.5 mg tablets every 30 minutes for eight doses) has been shown to decrease the number of bowel movements and shorten the length of illness. However, there is some concern about the large doses of bismuth in patients with kidney disease; therefore patients should check with physicians before starting this or any other therapy.
Patients should be aware that bismuth can turn bowel movements black in color. Medications designed to decrease intestinal motility and contractions such as loperamide, diphenoxylate, or others are safest when used by those without fever or bloody bowel movements. The presence of either of these symptoms indicates a more severe form of colitis.
Antibiotics are usually not needed, because most cases of TD rapidly improve with minimal treatment. For patients in whom symptoms are especially severe (4 or more stools per day or the onset of bloody diarrhea or fever), antibiotics are indicated. Individuals with less severe attacks can be treated with either antimotility medications or bismuth subsalicylate.
Choice of an antibiotic should ideally be tailored to the most likely organism and then adjusted according to results of stool cultures. Trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole or ciprofloxacin are the antibiotics most often prescribed, but others are also used. The type and duration of treatment continues to be revised, and it is therefore extremely important that patients check with a physician prior to beginning treatment. In many instances, an antibiotic can be combined with an antimotility agent to provide the quickest relief.
Up to 1% of patients with TD will become sick enough to require hospitalization, and 3% will continue to experience diarrhea for at least one month. The majority of patients rapidly recover with minimal therapy. Some will suffer symptoms for even longer. The small number who continue to suffer symptoms will need careful evaluation to rule out the many causes of chronic diarrhea (such as lactase deficiency, irritable bowel syndrome, parasites, etc.). It is unusual for diarrhea caused by bacteria to last over two weeks; therefore, more prolonged diarrhea indicates a non-bacterial cause.
The best means of prevention is avoiding foods, beverages, and food handling practices that lead to infection with the organisms that cause TD. One effective means to prevent TD is liquid Bismuth subsalicylate; this bismuth-containing compound has been shown to be very effective in reducing the incidence of TD. Tablets are now available, which are easier to carry. Two tablets four times a day is recommended, but use should not go beyond three weeks.
Antibiotics can also prevent TD, but their use is controversial, unless it is absolutely necessary to avoid infection (such as someone on an important business trip). There is the tendency for bacteria in to become resistant to these medications if used excessively; and these drugs do have side effects which can be worse than the effects of TD. The benefits and risks of antibiotic treatment should be carefully weighed.
(Author is a Medical Practitioner and can be reached on: email@example.com)