With COVID travel restrictions lifted, Americans are anxious to hit the road again. Some estimates suggest that 75% of us expect to travel domestically during the summer, and recent figures show that international travel from the United States more than doubled in May 2022 compared with last year.
But when you pack your bags, keep digestive health in mind. Tummy problems like diarrhea, constipation, and indigestion are all-too-common travel companions.
"Travel disrupts many of the body's natural rhythms, including digestion says Dr. Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. "Time changes, altered eating schedules, and impaired sleep are all likely culprits, especially in those who already have sensitive guts."
Here is a closer look at three common digestive upsets, how to prevent them, and how to manage them.
Travel tummy: Diarrhea
Diarrhea is the most common travel-related illness. Typically, people experience loose, watery stools with cramping and urgency. Diarrhea may arise from an infection caused by consuming food or water contaminated by bacterium or intestinal parasites, or be triggered by a change in environment or stress in people who have intermittent diarrhea.
How to prevent diarrhea: Avoiding contaminated food and water and practicing good hygiene by washing hands often are the best ways to avoid travel diarrhea.
- Stay well-hydrated. In developing countries, factory-sealed bottled water is the safest option. (And always use bottled water for brushing your teeth.) Avoid ice because it may come from unclean water.
- Choose food and drinks carefully. Eat only foods that are cooked and served hot; avoid food that has been sitting on a buffet. Eat raw fruits and vegetables only after washing or peeling them in clean water.
- Wash your hands. Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water, especially after using the bathroom and before eating. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer as a backup.
How to cope with diarrhea: Most episodes of diarrhea resolve on their own after a couple of days and are over within five days. However, see a doctor if you experience bloody diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, and/or a fever, or if your diarrhea lasts for longer than a week or two.
Otherwise, take these steps to help your recovery process:
- Replace lost fluids. Avoid dehydration by drinking bottled water and low-sugar sports drinks that contain electrolytes.
- Use over-the-counter products. Digestion relief medication that contains the active ingredients loperamide (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate) helps reduce the frequency of loose, watery stools and ease cramping. Take as directed.
Travel tummy: Constipation
Travel constipation happens when you don't keep to your regular schedule. Sitting for hours, like during a long flight and train or bus rides, and having your usual diet interrupted are two possible culprits. Constipation can last for a day or two or longer.
How to prevent constipation: There are some pre-travel steps to help you avoid constipation, especially if you are prone to it.
- Increase fiber and fluids. Make sure your pre-travel diet includes plenty of fiber, which makes stools softer and more comfortable to pass. Foods high in fiber include many fruits, like apples (with the skin), raspberries, and pears; beans; and whole-grain foods such as bran cereal. You can also use fiber supplements like methylcellulose (Citrucel) and psyllium (Metamucil). Do not load up on too much fiber at once because this can lead to bloating and gas. You also need to drink enough water along with increased fiber intake.
How to cope with constipation: Over-the-counter oral laxatives can help move everything along.
- Bulk-forming agents. These include calcium polycarbophil (FiberCon), methylcellulose (Citrucel), and psyllium (Metamucil). They take a day or so to work, but can be used indefinitely. Be sure to take them with plenty of liquids as directed on the label.
- Stool softeners. These medicines merge with stool and soften its consistency for easier passage. Look for products that contain docusate sodium (Colace, Surfak).
Travel tummy: Indigestion
Some things just don't agree with your body. Whether it's trying the local cuisines or eating more than usual, your stomach can get upset just like it might at home and trigger indigestion — stomach pain, bloating, and heartburn.
How to prevent indigestion: Traveling can disrupt our usual dietary habits, so try to keep eating and drinking in check. For instance:
- Watch the drinking. Some people find that even occasional alcoholic beverages can trigger an episode, so do not overdo it.
- Avoid trigger foods. Many people with IBS have trouble tolerating foods high in carbohydrates known as FODMAPs (short for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols). Common FODMAP foods are milk products, broccoli, beans and lentils, wheat, garlic, onions, apples, and fruit juices.
- Monitor portions. Overeating can raise the risk of indigestion. Focus on eating smaller servings and more frequent, smaller meals; for instance, small meals four times a day instead of three times.
- Slow down. Excess gas also can arise if you swallow too much air by eating too fast or talking while eating.
How to cope with indigestion: Indigestion usually passes in a short time on its own, but there are ways to ease the process.
- Use over-the-counter remedies. Depending on your symptoms, you can benefit from
- antacid pills or liquids
- upset-stomach medicine like bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate)
- an acid blocker for heartburn relief, such as a proton-pump inhibitor like omeprazole (Prilosec) or lansoprazole (Prevacid), or an H2 blocker like famotidine (Pepcid, Pepcid AC)
- An anti-gas remedy like Gas-X that contains simethicone.
If you need to use these remedies regularly for more than a couple of weeks, contact your doctor.