What It Feels Like to Get the World’s Grossest Travel Diseases
It’s 9:27 in the morning. I know this because I have looked at my phone’s clock every 30 seconds for the last five minutes. Our departure time is 9:30, and though it seems like time is standing still, my bowels are speeding for the finish line.
We’re on a connecting flight to New Delhi from a small town in Kerala, India, where my new Norwegian friend, Fredrik, and I have just spent some time eating pineapple on the beach, chatting with men in skirts -- and throwing up violently into buckets.
My stomach gurgles. “Ma’am, can I please use the restroom?,” I ask a passing flight attendant for the second time, who’s checking to make sure we’re wearing our seatbelts. “It’s an emergency.” “No miss, we are about to depart. Not safe,” she says, sternly. “It’s an emergency,” I repeat, wiping sweat off my forehead from my 102-degree fever, trying to ignore dirty looks from passengers around me.
Fredrik puts his hand on my back and chuckles to himself. “Yeah, real fucking funny,” I say, “I’m about to sh-“ and before I could even finish my warning, my greatest fear has come to fruition: I shit my goddamn pants in seat 17C. The following three hours I have fully blacked out of my memory, but am told they include a lot of sobbing, laughing, disapproving glares, and about four hundred apologies.
Turns out I had Cryptosporidium (also known as “Crypto”), one of the least-appealing bugs that you can come down with while traveling. And yet it’s far from the worst, truth be told. If you’re ever traveling to far-flung locales, I damn sure don’t want you to die, and nor do I want anyone else to have to go through the emotional trauma of hearing a fellow passenger scream “You’ll never get married!” because you defiled an entire airplane.
Here’s how to recognize -- and altogether avoid! -- six of the most common diseases travelers are likely to encounter, in the words of travelers who’ve actually had ‘em. Read this so you don’t crap your pants in front of strangers. I do it for the people!
What it’s like to get malaria
Why, it’s only the deadliest parasitic disease in the world, killer of a million people a year. One mosquito bite is all it can take across large regions of Africa and South Asia, parts of Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Oceania. I got malaria when I was volunteering in Uganda (read: I’m better than you), and, as someone who’s lived through it, I can safely say: It sucks ass. I spoke with my boss in Uganda, April Gulley -- she now works at an importer called Ubuntu Trade -- about her experience with this disease. Between the two of us, we’re giving you the what’s what.
Symptoms: Occur about 7 to 30 days after the bite. You’ll be a sweaty mess with on and off fevers, headaches, chills, and a distinctive, sharp shooting pain from the base of your neck to the bottom of your spine. A good way to tell it’s malaria is that symptoms will come and go.
How to avoid it: “Because it comes from mosquitoes, there’s not a whole lot you can do besides wear bug repellent and use a net while you sleep at night,” Gulley says. “Avoid brightly colored clothing.” Neither of us took preventative medicine, like Malarone, because the tablets are not 100% effective and can have rough side effects: bad sleep, nightmares, relapses of depression, dizziness, a generally sick feeling. Still, there’s no vaccine for malaria, so if you’re going to the tropics, taking preventative medicine might be your best option. Discuss with a doctor.
How to treat it: “If you have access to a clinic, they can do a rapid malaria test and let you know within minutes if you’ve got it,” Gulley says. “Then you’ll take meds for a few days. I think the total cost for the clinic test and pills was around $20, but $6 for pills only.” Fun fact: Once you have malaria, you always have it. It lays dormant in your body and can wake up when you’re old and kill you. Found your next villain, Marvel.
What it’s like to get Cryptosporidium (also known as “Crypto”)
This parasite is the little bastard that caused my epic airplane meltdown. You can get it anywhere in the world. I got it while working in India, probably from drinking local water or eating contaminated food.
Symptoms: For me, the number one symptom was complete and total humiliation. Watery diarrhea (sorry), weight loss, dehydration, nausea, vomiting, fever, and stomach cramps are also common symptoms. At first I figured it was just the flu or food poisoning, but then I kept losing weight and was unable to hold down any food for weeks.
How to avoid it: Drink bottled water only, or use iodine or an ultraviolet pen to sterilize water. Remember that uncooked produce washed with contaminated water can also cause infection, so stick to fruits and vegetables that have a peel, like bananas, or those which have been washed with safe water. Don’t swim in still or murky waters. Don’t get on an airplane when risk of shitting your pants is on the horizon, because everyone will rightly hate you. (Don’t worry, guys, I wasn’t contagious, just totally unfuckable).
How to treat it: Most healthy people can recover without treatment, and by drinking lots of water to stay hydrated while it passes. Nitazoxanide is an FDA-approved treatment of diarrhea caused by crypto. A doctor will have to prescribe it.
“It was like the movie Alien.”
What it’s like to get cholera
This often-fatal bacterial disease most commonly transmitted through infected water. It can be found anywhere in the world. Corey Petrick, a filmmaker, describes his bout with cholera while filming a project in Madagascar. His experience was so overwhelming that he had to “hire a guy just to hold my camera because I kept having to go poop every few minutes, so I basically crapped in front of a crew of people for five days straight.” If you don’t get right with the bug, that’ll be how you go out: Tens of thousands of people die every year from this nasty customer.
Symptoms: Water leaving your body in the worst ways. “Diarrhea constantly,” Petrick says. “You can’t keep any food or liquid in your body at all. You’ll feel water come through and out, and get to the point where your poop is bright yellow to clear.” Other symptoms include foul-smelling gas, weight loss, nausea, and fatigue.
How to avoid it: If you’re in a risky environment, drink bottled water only, eat cooked foods, and get fanatical about things that may be wet. “A little trick: don’t eat salads,” Petrick says, “because they wash lettuce with contaminated water. Even if someone touches your water bottle with polluted hands, you can get it.”
How to treat it: Since your greatest risk is death by dehydration, you’ll want to keep hydrating, even though it immediately passes. “Drink water and pee it out your butt!” Petrick says. “The amount of water you have to drink is unreal.” You can take Cipro or other antibiotics, but Petrick did not have access to any medical professionals or a hospital, so he had no choice but to pass it naturally, on the ground, steps away from some poor DoP who was just trying to beef up his reel. Probably not what that guy had in mind when he went to film school.
What it’s like to get giardia
Known also as “beaver fever,” giardia is an intestinal infection starts when you pick up a parasite through contaminated people, food, and water. It’s found all around the world.
Corey Petrick, the unluckiest guy on the planet, also described his experience of contracting giardia while hiking Mount Whitney. He says he probably got it from animal urine while “eating snow,” which is both weird and insanely funny. “It was hot, and I didn’t think animals were up that high, so I figured why not?” There’s a lot to unpack here.
Symptoms: “It was like the movie Alien,” Petrick says. “I felt like I had an alien inside my chest desperate to get out. It was like the worst heartburn or gas I’ve ever experienced. I knew it wasn’t just heartburn because it was so intense and wouldn’t go away.” Also expected with this little number: diarrhea, abdominal cramps, bloating, flatulence, fatigue, anorexia, and nausea.
How to avoid it: Drink bottled water or find some other safe source. “I take a SteriPen [when I travel], an ultraviolet pen that you stir around in your water, and it’ll kill whatever is living in there,” Petrick says. You can also get it accidentally swallowing water while swimming in a river, so if you must swim, keep those lips pursed.
How to treat it: Antibiotics will make short work of it. You can recover without medicine, but you’re in for three weeks of feeling like a human dumpster.
Douse yourself in bug repellent. Put it in your AC vents. Take a bubble bath in it. Go nuts.
What it’s like to get Zika
You’ve definitely heard of this virus transmitted through mosquitoes; in 2016 it blew up into a global threat in Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean, Central America, the Pacific Islands, and South America. Famously it can have grim effects on fetuses, but if you’re not pregnant, you’re likely to come through it relatively easily.
Hayley Milliman, a writer, says she was on a family vacation to Mexico when she got Zika. Thankfully, she wasn’t pregnant nor trying to get pregnant, so her doctor assured her Zika is actually “not that big of a deal.” After nine months to a year, it is safe for her to try to get pregnant.
Symptoms: “I got a bunch of mosquito bites [in Mexico], and I didn’t think twice about it. But when I got home, I got a skin rash and fever and went to the doctor, not even thinking it was Zika,” Milliman says. The rash can look like inflammation or hives. Other symptoms include: headache, joint pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes), and muscle pain. Infection during pregnancy can cause a birth defect called microcephaly and other truly awful stuff.
How to treat it: Milliman says she has sensitive skin and figured if she didn’t get steroids, the rash would take forever to go away, so she went to a doctor who tested her for Zika. “I didn’t take any medicine, because my doctor said I’d probably be fine,” she says. “So, I just took steroids for the rash.” If you’re pregnant, your healthcare provider may be able to provide an antibody that researchers believe helps fight the Zika infection.
How to avoid it: Bug repellent with DEET should be your religion. You can also get Zika through sex with an infected person, so use protection. If you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, it might be smart to avoid areas where Zika is common. Pregnancy suppresses your immune system, so if you’re with child, you’re extra likely to contract a virus. Ugh, being a woman should be a tax write-off.
What it’s like to get dengue
Another virus transmitted via mosquitoes, Dengue is endemic in Puerto Rico, Latin America, Southeast Asia and around the Pacific islands. Something like 3 million people a year get the infection, including a few thousand in the United States. Daniel Perez, a nurse, noticed symptoms of dengue when he was 15 years old living in Puerto Rico.
Symptoms: Perez says he was running a fever at school and was sent home, where his mom “noticed red spots on the inside of my elbows and immediately took me to the emergency room.” Apparently, red spots or patches on the skin are a tell-tale sign it’s dengue. Other symptoms include the flu, joint pain, black, tar-like stools, pale and clammy skin, vomiting blood, and bleeding from gums and nose. From that menu, I’ll take the red spots.
How to treat it: Since it’s a virus, there’s not much you can do besides stay hydrated and try to boost your immune system. Avoid ibuprofen and aspirin. Perez stayed in the hospital for a few days, where he received an IV drip of vitamin C and other medications to help him bounce back.
How to avoid it: There’s no vaccine, but again: douse yourself in bug repellent. Slather it on. Put it in your AC vents. Take a bubble bath in it. Go nuts.
Have I sufficiently horrified you? Remember that one of the most important ways you can stay healthy abroad is to keep your immune system in tip-top shape. Try echinacea, vitamin C, Counter Attack, or whatever immune booster you prefer. Get enough sleep, stay hydrated (with bottled water!), and don’t forget that even brushing your teeth with sink water can get you infected. Don’t eat snow. And if you do shit your pants, know that I still love you.