How To Navigate Travel Tummy Bugs On Your Next Big Trip

Cooked street foods on wooden plates. Learn how to navigate and prevent tummy bugs while traveling with The Travel Yogi.

There it is again: that dreaded feeling in the pit of your stomach. “Not now!” you think. You’ve got that amazing snorkeling adventure in the Galápagos Islands tomorrow, but you haven’t been able to leave the bathroom since lunch. What are you going to do?! We’ve all been there. How can we stop an upset stomach from derailing our carefully crafted travel plans? Read on to learn why travel tummy bugs are inevitable and what you can do to keep them from ruining your next big trip.

What Are Travel Tummy Bugs (Really)?

Travel tummy bugs can be caused by a virus, bacteria, or parasite. It’s important to know which type you’re being afflicted by because the treatment will vary.

Bacteria (They’re Alive!)

The majority of travel illnesses are caused by bacteria, microorganisms that can live alone without a host (as perhaps evidenced by the rotting peach on your counter!). Unlike viruses, bacteria are mostly good for humans. In fact, the health of your digestive tract depends on thriving bacterial flora! But some bacteria can be harmful. Most bacterial infections, such as E.coli and Salmonella, are caused by contaminated drinking water or undercooked food. Fortunately, most bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics.

Parasites (Also Alive!)

Unlike bacteria that can live on surfaces for hours or even days, parasites need a living host to survive. Like bacteria, parasites are contracted through contaminated drinking water and undercooked food, and can often be killed by antibiotics. Giardia is an example of a parasite that causes diarrhea. (If you’re not familiar with Giardia, trust us, you don’t wanna be.)

Viruses (Not Alive!)

Viruses are non-living infectious agents spread by humans and animals. They usually can’t live long outside of a host, which means you’re less likely to pick them up from unclean surfaces. Because viruses are not living organisms, they cannot be treated with antibiotics. Norovirus is an example of a very contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea. 

Why Do We Get Tummy Bugs When Traveling?

Think about it: odds are, you have lived in one country the majority of your life. Just as your palate is accustomed to certain types of foods, your entire digestive tract is also accustomed to the garden variety bacteria and pathogens you have in your home country. When you decide to leave that home base (which you absolutely should!), your digestive tract goes along for the ride, getting exposed to all new kinds of microbes! Whee!

All that to say, travel tummy bugs are a natural occurrence for any international trip. But don’t let that keep you from heading to the airport!

With some careful planning, you’ll not only increase your chances of staying healthy, but you’ll also be more prepared for when you do ingest something your body does not like.

How to Prevent and Avoid Travel Tummy Bugs

1. Do Your Homework (You’re Not Too Cool For School)

This is no time to skip your homework! As obvious as it sounds, read up on your destination. Is their drinking water safe, even in a 5-star hotel? Is it safe to eat raw fish? What street foods should you avoid? What about local fruit? Doing just a little research beforehand can help you avoid those tiny slip-ups that would otherwise leave you doubled over later. (Worse than detention!)

2. Wash Your Hands (Embrace Your Inner Germophobe)

Research shows that the largest contributor to traveler’s diarrhea is poor hygiene in local restaurants. While you may not have much control over this, you can still do your part by washing or sanitizing your hands before putting any food into your mouth.

Think about all the surfaces you touch going through an airport alone:

Using public transit, going through security, handling your shoes, hanging onto handrails in a bus to the aircraft—microbes are waiting for you on these surfaces! Don’t fall into their trap!

In other words, in all travel scenarios, ask yourself, “What would my germaphobe cousin do?” and do that! (This would also be a good time to get over your nail-biting habit!)

3. Pack Anti-diarrheal Medication (Or Buy Local!)

Knowing that up to 7 out of 10 travelers will get traveler’s diarrhea at some point during their trip, it’s best to plan for the inevitable. If you forgot to pack Loperamide (commonly known as Imodium), not to worry! Find a local pharmacy in your destination city and ask them for anti-diarrheal medication. (Because the packaging will be in a foreign language, this option will be easiest if you speak the host language.) Keep it in your bag at all times. If you don’t… you might end up with one of those humiliating stories that are only funny five years later. And no one wants one of those! 

4. Take Probiotics (Good Bacteria to the Rescue!)

Diarrhea is often a sign that the healthy bacterial flora in our digestive tracts is out of whack. Furthermore, if you have to take antibiotics, they will kill even the healthy bacteria in your body that you need to process nutrients. So after you finish a regimen of antibiotics, it will be important to take probiotics to re-establish the healthy bacteria in your system. Lactobacilli—yum, yum, yum!

5. Consider Travel Vaccines (More Homework?? Ugh!)

Vaccines are used to help prevent viral infection and so can be an extra level of protection. The downside? They can be costly. Some travelers recommend waiting and getting vaccines in the host country at a fraction of the cost. This assumes the host country has that vaccine in supply; you will have to do your research beforehand and make the best choice for you.

6. Don’t Forget Travel Insurance! (For Peace of Mind)

Travel insurance is relatively cheap, and you can find plans that cover medication and doctor’s visits. (Need a recommendation? We’ve got one!)

I’ve Caught a Bug! Now What?

Despite your best efforts, you’re feeling under the weather. Don’t panic! Remember that tummy upsets are a part of world travel. Wherever you are, there are people in that city ready to take care of you if needed! Meanwhile, here are some self-care tips:

1. Chill Out: Give Yourself At Least 24 Hours

While this may be difficult to stomach (heehee!), you won’t really know what you’re dealing with until you allow time to pass. Food poisoning usually passes in about 12 hours, while traveler’s diarrhea can take a day or two to clear up. As frustrating as it may be to set aside your packed itinerary, allowing your body to rest can actually help you get back on the road faster. (Don’t be stubborn. Your surfing lessons can wait. Everyone involved will thank you.)

2. Drink Up: Drink Plenty of Water and Electrolytes

Remember that your body is actively losing nutrients, so it’s normal to feel tired and low-energy. Drink plenty of water and electrolytes, and switch to bland foods like bread and rice. Packing your favorite electrolyte replacement powder from home (travel-sized packets, of course) is always a good idea.  If your symptoms include diarrhea, you can also break into your Loperamide stash to see if that helps clear it up. (It’s important to note that while Loperamide helps with symptoms, it won’t treat the actual problem if you have a parasite, for example.)

3. Level-up: Go to a Clinic

If rest, water, and Loperamide aren’t helping, it could mean you have a bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection.

Unfortunately, without proper medical training, it’s not possible to diagnose yourself with which type of illness you have. That’s right—no more “Dr. Google”! Just go to a clinic and run some tests. Remember to hold onto your receipts for reimbursement from your traveler’s insurance

In true yogi spirit, take a deep breath and relax. The clinic will take care of you! They’ve seen it all.

4. Check-In: When To Go to the Hospital

If symptoms get severely worse after a day, it’s best to just head straight to the hospital. Our local managers and guides will be there to help.  And, once again, hold onto your receipts for reimbursement from your traveler’s insurance.

Have You Caught The Travel Bug Yet? Book Your Next Trip With Us!

For your travel fears, the Travel Yogi’s got helpful information—and a million reasons why you should still travel! Now that you are well-versed in preventing and treating travel tummy bugs, you are more ready than ever to hop on a plane to your next exotic destination! Need any ideas on where to go next? We’ve got a bunch of them! Whatever your destination, know that Travel Yogi has your back. Whether it’s providing first-class traveler’s insurance or having a robust COVID policy, we’ve got the details covered so you can take care of… well, you! Now get out there!