Traveling? Don’t pack the antibiotics

I do a lot of traveling. And it always concerns me when I meet fellow globe-trekkers whose doctors prescribed them antibiotics as a “precaution” against the stomach woes that often strike during trips abroad. This cavalier attitude towards antibiotics is one of the driving factors behind the disturbing rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. And a new study shows just how much damage this approach can do.

Researchers in Finland collected stool samples from 430 people before and after they travelled outside of Scandinavia. The travelers completed surveys about their trips, including questions about diarrhea and antibiotic use.

The researchers’ goal was to determine if a particular type of bacteria colonized the study participants’ guts. This bacteria produces an enzyme called extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL), which results in resistance to many commonly used antibiotics.

Obviously, that can wreak absolute havoc in the body. And, ultimately, it can result in severe infections that are harder and more expensive to treat—and more likely to be fatal—than the “Montezuma’s revenge” people were taking the antibiotics for in the first place.

Overall, 21 percent of the study subjects had unknowingly contracted ESBL-producing bacteria during their trips. And, as it turns out, acquiring a case of traveler’s diarrhea and treating it with antibiotics while abroad actually increased the risk.

Among those who took antibiotics for diarrhea, 37 percent were colonized with ESBL bacteria. People who traveled to South Asia faced the highest risk: 80 percent of travelers who took antibiotics for diarrhea while visiting the region were colonized with it.

In other words, taking antibiotics for diarrhea may put travelers at greater risk for contracting superbugs. Not to mention spreading these drug-resistant bacteria when they get back to their home countries.

You see, even if ESBL-colonized travelers don’t develop infections themselves, they may unwittingly spread superbugs once they return home.

My advice? If you’re going on a trip, leave the antibiotics at home. There’s a better, safer solution for keeping your gut healthy. I’m talking about investing in a good quality, multi-strain probiotic supplement, and making it a part of your daily regimen—at home AND abroad.


Antimicrobials Increase Travelers’ Risk of Colonization by Extended-Spectrum Betalactamase-Producing Enterobacteriaceae. Clinical Infectious Diseases, epub ahead of print 1/21/15

Antibiotic Self-treatment of Travelers’ Diarrhea: Helpful or Harmful? Clinical Infectious Diseases epub ahead of print 1/21/15