Prevent If Possible

Nothing — well, almost nothing — can spoil a vacation more than a gastrointestinal (GI) illness. These illnesses are more severe in the very young and elderly. Prolonged symptoms can be fatal in these age groups. Prevention is often easier than the cure. 

For most GI symptoms, avoiding dehydration is the key. When vomiting is present avoid ANY food for at least four hours after the vomiting ceases, but start treatment with small amounts (1-2 oz.) of an electrolyte solution every 30 minutes. A great electrolyte solution is Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola (NOT the diet type) mixed 50:50. Plain water upsets an empty stomach. 

Physicians used to advise avoiding food when just diarrhea is present but we now know that small amounts of bland food frequently is better. Although there are many over-the-counter preparations for diarrhea, it is best to allow the intestines to empty naturally than to try to stop the diarrhea with medication.

For most GI symptoms, avoiding dehydration is the key.


The highest-risk foods include custards, mousses, potato salads, hollandaise sauce, mayonnaise, seafood, salads, raw vegetables (especially leafy vegetables and sprouts, which are hard to wash), strawberries, and raspberries. Be smart and make good judgment calls. If, upon walking into an eatery or food retailer that looks dirty or smells bad, it’s best to walk out. Even though purchasing food from a street vendor might seem like a cultural experience worth trying, you may want to think twice. Inadequate refrigeration or cooking may lead to stomach cramps, vomiting, or diarrhea from bacterial contamination.


Water in Costa Rica is treated and tested by government authorities. Nevertheless, when untreated water is used to wash or prepare food, the food can become contaminated with disease-causing organisms.

Water-borne diarrheal illness usually results from the ingestion of viruses and parasites in water contaminated by human or agricultural fecal waste. 

During rainy season in Costa Rica, and especially in underdeveloped beach areas, it is highly recommended to drink bottled water. Sometimes salt water from the ocean can contaminate the fresh water tanks due to heavy rains and waves.

If a person does get sick, especially with prolonged diarrhea, it is VITAL that they stay as hydrated as possible. Becoming very dehydrated from these illnesses can lead to debilitation and even death if proper care is not provided. The first sign of mild dehydration is thirst. Anyone whose condition does not improve will need to go to the hospital for an IV.

Traveler’s diarrhea

Traveler’s diarrhea is the most common medical problem affecting travelers to Costa Rica and other developing countries. This is an intestinal infection caused by bacteria (usually e.coli), parasites, or viruses transmitted primarily from contaminated food or water. In Costa Rica the main source is from salmonella bacteria in food. The symptoms of this illness are nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, and of course diarrhea.

Episodes of traveler’s diarrhea can begin abruptly, either during travel or soon after returning home. This illness is avoidable. The risk of illness will depend on the quality and purity of the food and water consumed, and the use of good personal hygiene practices. 

Click this online Howler article link for information on a related topic: Intestinal Parasites: Invisible Trouble Makers

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