Your bags may be packed, but is your body prepared to fight a travel illness? By far, the most common condition Canadians suffer from while abroad is travellers’ diarrhea. “When it comes to post-travel illness, gastrointestinal problems can make up anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the problems in returning travellers,” says Dr. Jay Keystone, the Medical Director of Medisys Travel in Toronto.

Regardless of your final destination, it’s critically important that you consult a health care professional at least four to six weeks before your departure for information on location-specific illnesses and to determine the need for any vaccinations. “At least 20 percent of people will get diarrhea while they travel,” Dr. Keystone says. “They’ll either come home ill or they can have post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome, which can go on for months or years.”

Know your foe

One of the main bacteria that causes travellers’ diarrhea is enterotoxigenic E.coli (ETEC). It contaminates all kinds of surfaces as well as food items and water. “We always say, ‘Boil it, peel it, cook it, or forget it’,” says Dr. Keystone. “It’s easy to remember, but impossible to do if you’re eating at restaurants.” To avoid ETEC’s symptoms — including diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, fever, and vomiting — consider vaccination, practise safe food and water precautions, wash your hands frequently with soap and water, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available, and stick to using and drinking commercially-sealed bottled water during your trip.

Don’t spoil your trip because of a lack of options. Speak to your health care professional to find out how you can reduce your risk of diarrhea during travel. Be prepared and be proactive — it’s your best bet when it comes to your health while travelling.