Travel Smarter: Potable Water Safety

Before traveling to certain parts of the world, you may have heard the recommendation to "boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it." While this is a great mnemonic to help you remember how to avoid consuming contaminated food or beverages, it helps to understand the mechanisms behind infection.

Travelers who get sick after ingesting contaminated water most often experience travelers' diarrhea (TD). According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), TD is the most common illness affecting travelers and may occur in 30 to 70 percent of travelers, depending on the destination and season of travel.

While most cases resolve on their own after a few days, TD is unpleasant and can ruin a vacation. Most cases of TD are caused by bacteria, including Escherichia coli (E. coli), Salmonella and others. Occasionally, viral infections from rotavirus, norovirus and astrovirus also lead to TD. It is also important to note that TD isn't the only illness caused by unsafe water. You can also get more serious infections, such as hepatitis A or typhoid.

It can be difficult to completely avoid unsafe water, but the key to doing so is to be careful about what you eat and drink and make sure all water used for hygienic purposes is also clean. Here are some tips about what is usually safe and what to avoid when traveling to areas where TD is common.

For divers, it is also critical to avoid swimming with open cuts or wounds or swallowing water while in potentially unclean water.

If despite your best efforts you come down with a case of TD, make sure you drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Over-the-counter diarrhea medicine such as loperamide may also help. If symptoms are particularly severe or prolonged, or if the person suffering from TD is very young or old or suffers from a chronic medical condition, seek immediate professional medical assistance. The sufferer may require antibiotics or further medical intervention.

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© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2017