On to the intensity of your poops: Per the CDC’s travel guidebook, mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea don’t interrupt your daily activities (meaning, it sucks but you can handle it); moderate ones mess with your plans and can be fairly distressing; and in severe cases, you’re totally unable to go about your life because the pain, the poop, the entire predicament is that intense.
However, if your TD’s on the milder side, Imodium can be helpful. According to Dr. Fiorito, a less-intense case suggests you may be infected with a virus, perhaps one that causes food poisoning; with such illnesses, antidiarrheals can slow down the runs while allowing your body to fight the infection. But if bacteria is to blame, as it was in my case, or if you have moderate to severe diarrhea (i.e. you can’t stray too far from the bathroom or there’s blood in your stool), you probably want to skip the Imodium and other anti-motility drugs—and definitely go to the doctor. Bacterial infections tend to be more invasive and severe and using these meds would “just be keeping the bacteria in,” Dr. Fiorito says.
Stay hydrated by taking small sips of water.
My doctor advised me to keep drinking water since I was losing a ton of fluids, but it just seemed to make things worse. Whenever I chugged, my stomach would cramp up and I’d have to bolt to the toilet moments later.
It turns out I was going about it all wrong: Gulping down water was my mistake. Drinking too much, too quickly can make your GI issues even worse. “Take small sips so as to not overwhelm the body,” Dr. Fioriti advises. This helps your kidneys process and filter the water more effectively, too, she says, so you can avoid dehydration—which can become pretty dangerous and lead to serious issues, like organ damage or shock, that require a visit to the ER. “Small sips ensure your body can use all that water, without the kidneys getting overwhelmed, and process it without excreting what it doesn’t need,” Dr. Fioriti says.
While we’re on the topic: Rehydration solutions with electrolytes—which you can find in Liquid I.V. packets and Pedialyte—are solid choices. You can also make your own hydration cocktail. Here are a few options from Dr. Fioriti: Half a can of Coke or half a glass of Gatorade with equal parts water and a pinch of salt, or, the simplest bet: Six teaspoons of sugar, half a teaspoon of salt, plus four cups of water.
Use acetaminophen instead of NSAIDs.
When you have traveler’s diarrhea, it can feel like your intestines are at war—which is why, in moderate to serious cases, it’s smart to opt for a pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol) instead of ibuprofen (Advil) or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxen (Aleve) or aspirin.
NSAIDs, especially with heavier use, are known to cause gut side effects in some people, including gas, abdominal pain, and gastrointestinal bleeding. With TD, your stomach’s already going through the wringer and popping too much ibuprofen could potentially add fuel to the fire. Definitely ask your doctor about this one: While one pill likely won’t do any harm, relying on these drugs to feel better could end up making your stomach more upset, depending on your underlying health, the severity of your symptoms, and your history with NSAID use. “It’s just very irritating to the stomach,” Dr. Fioriti says.
Other than that, you want to relax as much as possible and eat small amounts of bland foods (toast! bananas!) and salty snacks (like pretzels or crackers). And as always, if you feel really, really unwell, talk to your doctor. More serious cases of TD—those that involve bloody diarrhea or more than three watery poops a day—may require a course of antibiotics to get your bowels back on track. That, sadly, was the case for me and my husband.
TD knocked me off my feet, but the moment I started following the above tips—and, eventually, letting the antibiotics do their thing—the better I felt. Rotating in and out of the bathroom wasn’t exactly how we envisioned our first-anniversary trip ending, but, hey, as they say, in sickness and in health!
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