What You Want to Know about Travel Constipation and Diarrhea but Won’t Ask

Kristen Domonell Fact Checked
© HEX. / Stocksy United and rawpixel on Unsplash

You may love traveling, but your gut doesn’t always share the sentiment. From constipation to diarrhea to gas, gastrointestinal issues are common vacation woes.

Does that mean GI distress in an inevitable side effect of traveling? Not necessarily, says Dr. Seth Cohen, clinic chief of UW Medical Center - Northwest’s Infectious Disease and Travel Medicine clinics. If you’d rather spend your vacation comfortably hanging out on a beach, exploring a new city, or adventuring in nature sans bloating or running to the bathroom every five minutes, we’ve got some answers for you.

Why do some people get constipated on vacation?

In an ideal world, we’d all probably like to pack for a trip way in advance, go to bed early the night before a flight and breeze through security with no stress. But like a good expectation vs. reality meme, real life often looks more like last-minute packing, four hours of sleep and running to the gate.

Uprooting your routines and sleep schedule can mess with your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s internal clock. It’s not only responsible for regulating sleep and wakefulness, but also controlling your temperature, hormone levels, body systems and organs.

“When we cross time zones or don’t sleep well, those are common reasons our natural rhythm might be affected,” says Cohen.

Regular bowel movements also rely on hydration and a balanced diet, which are sometimes replaced with inadequate water consumption, a few too many alcoholic drinks and a less-than-stellar diet of rest stop food and airport newsstand snacks.

“Exercise is another component of staying regular, which can be hard when you’re cooped up inside a car or on an airplane,” says Cohen.

What about traveler’s diarrhea?

Even more common than constipation during travel is the reverse. Traveler’s diarrhea affects up to 40 percent of travelers, especially when visiting developing countries, Cohen says.

“It’s usually a very benign, self-limited condition and your body will get rid of the symptoms after two to four days,” he says.

A common cause of traveler’s diarrhea is bacteria from undercooked or raw food, tap water or ice. Eating foods you aren’t used to can disrupt your gut microbiome and create bowel issues, too, even if the food isn’t contaminated.

People who take medications for gastric reflux are at a higher risk for GI issues during travel. That’s because these medications suppress stomach acid, which is an important barrier to bacteria in the environment, Cohen explains.

Travelers should note that diarrhea typically doesn’t require treatment with antibiotics, and that taking over-the-counter antibiotics in other countries can put you at risk for even worse bugs. Seek medical help right away if you have blood in your stool or a fever.

How can you stay regular on the road?

No one wants to spend a trip worrying about when—or if—they’ll need to poo. Follow these doctor-approved tips to keep your plumbing running smoothly.

Avoid foods that may be contaminated. Diarrhea is sometimes impossible to avoid, but the best ways to minimize your risk when traveling in developing countries are to eat foods that are thoroughly cooked and still hot, eat fruits you need to peel, drink bottled beverages and avoid ice in your drinks.

Stay moving. Whether it’s taking a walk around the airport terminal or at a rest stop, utilizing a hotel treadmill or going for a swim, exercising will help keep things down there moving as they should.

Drink plenty of water. Hydration is key if you want to avoid constipation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends women consume 2.7 liters of water per day from all beverages and foods, and 3.7 liters for men. Pack a reusable water bottle when you’re traveling in areas with safe drinking water, and stock up on large bottles of water when you’re not.

Fill up on fiber. Often when we travel, we’re not eating the healthiest foods or foods that are high in fiber. Packing fiber-rich snacks like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes will keep you full longer, give you energy and keep you regular.

Schedule an appointment at a travel medicine clinic. If you plan on traveling outside the country, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment at a travel clinic to find out if there are any vaccinations you need. Your doctor may recommend packing a gentle laxative and taking probiotic supplements if constipation or diarrhea are known travel issues for you.