Traveler's constipation (aka vacation constipation) isn't as common as its dreaded cousin, traveler's diarrhea, but it can still affect the quality of your trip.
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The largest study to date, published in 1978 in the Swiss medical journal Schweizerische Medizinische Wochenschrift and still cited today, reported that 14 percent of travelers to tropical areas complained that they couldn't poop. About half of those cases lasted after the travel had ended.
Unlike traveler's diarrhea, which is more common in developing parts of the world, constipation can happen anywhere you travel. But simple preparation can help make sure you poop on vacation.
Symptoms of Traveler’s Constipation
When it comes to how often you poop, everyone has their own "normal." That said, a commonly accepted standard is anywhere from three times a day to three times a week, according to the American Gastroenterological Association.
That's why traveler's constipation is marked by:
- Having infrequent (for you) bowel movements while you're traveling or away from home
- Having dry or hard stools that are difficult to pass
What Causes It?
While traveler's diarrhea is almost always caused by some sort of pathogen, the reasons why travel causes constipation are less clear. A number of factors most likely contribute, including:
1. Changes in Diet
"Traveler's constipation is usually due to food indiscretions," says Niket Sonpal, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City. "You may be eating more meats and starches and, because of that, less fiber."
Fiber has a host of benefits for your body, and especially your digestion: It adds bulk to and softens your stool, making it easier to pass.
It's easy to lose fluid while you're away from home. Planes are notoriously dry, and some people traveling by road or rail drink less so as to avoid using public bathrooms, says Kalyani Meduri, MD, a gastroenterologist at AdventHealth Medical Group in Zephyrhills, Florida.
Water helps food move through your digestive system and makes poop easier to pass, so the effects of dehydration often include constipation.
Vacations and business trips often involved drinking more alcohol than you might at home. But alcohol can be dehydrating, leading to less frequent BMs.
Like anxiety of any kind, the stress of traveling (especially in the era of COVID-19) may slow down your poop schedule, Dr. Meduri says. Anxiety around pooping in public may also cause you to hold your poop, which can — you guessed it — lead to constipation.
5. Lack of Movement
Unless you're hiking the Appalachian Trail, chances are your mode of travel has rendered you immobile for a period of time. Inactivity tends to slow and even halt bowel movements, Dr. Meduri says.
6. Time Differences and Changes in Routine
"Time zones can play a role because the body is used to pooping at certain hours, and your diet also dictates poop schedules," Dr. Sonpal explains.
In other words, if you're used to pooping just after you've eaten breakfast around, say, 8 a.m. your time, your body may be confused when you travel to a different time zone and eat breakfast much earlier or later.
7. Being in the Sun and Sweating
Being in a hot and humid environment can also dehydrate you, Dr. Sonpal says, especially if you're not used to it.
8. Altitude Sickness
Traveling to an area with much higher altitude than you're used to can lead to constipation, according to Aspen Valley Hospital. (Interestingly, high altitude can also cause diarrhea for some people.)
Similarly, you could experience constipation after flying. It's related to a condition known as HAFE (high-altitude flatus expulsion), which causes the gas in your gut to expand, leading to discomfort and bloating.
Bear in mind that certain people are at higher risk for constipation at any time. This includes people who have low thyroid levels or are taking narcotic pain medications, Dr. Meduri says.
How to Prevent Traveler’s Constipation
Each of the different potential causes of constipation has a relatively simple solution. Here are the best ways to stay regular while traveling:
1. Drink Plenty of Water and Juice
Dr. Meduri recommends drinking about an ounce for every kilo (2.2 pounds) of body weight each day. So if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kilos), for example, you should aim to drink about 68 ounces of water a day, or about eight cups. If you weigh 200 pounds (91 kilos), you should aim for about 11 cups.
If you're traveling to developing parts of the world, make sure you only drink bottled water or water that's been boiled, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Drinking lots of water will also help combat altitude sickness.
2. Pack Fiber Bars or Fiber Gummies
These can help you get in fiber when your food options are limited, Dr. Meduri says. Fruits and vegetables are also a good source of fiber, but make sure they have been washed in clean water or that you are able to peel them yourself.
Don’t overload on fiber, which can backfire. The Cleveland Clinic recommends one to two servings of vegetables and one to two servings of fruit every day.
3. Indulge in Moderation
Minimize high-fat and high-starch foods, as these can slow down your digestive system, Dr. Sonpal says. Go easy on the alcohol, too.
4. Heed the Call
If you need to go, go and don't delay, recommends the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As we mentioned, holding your poop can lead to constipation or make it worse.
If you're not keen on public restrooms, try these tips for conquering your fear of pooping away from home.
5. Stick to a Routine as Much as Possible
This means sleep, diet and bathroom breaks. Schedules tend to get thrown off on vacation, but schedules help keep bowel movements regular.
Stand up and walk around while you're flying and plan breaks to stretch if you're driving long distances. Once you're reached your destination, plan activities like walking or biking.
How to Treat Vacation Constipation
If you haven't had a bowel movement in two to three days and that's not your norm, take an over-the-counter stool softener or supplement, Dr. Meduri advises.
Some of the best laxatives for travel constipation include the following (make sure to use these medicines only as directed):
When to See a Doctor
Although everyone is different, Dr. Meduri recommends seeing a doctor if you haven't pooped in five days. Prolonged constipation can result in fecal impaction (stool stuck in your rectum).
Also, seek medical help if you have blood in your stool.
Is This an Emergency?
- Schweizerische Medizinische Wochenschrift: “Risk of disease in 10,500 travelers to tropical countries and 1,300 tourists to North America”
- Digestive Diseases and Sciences: “Development of functional diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and dyspepsia during and after traveling outside the USA”
- American Gastroenterological Association: “Constipation”
- American College of Gastroenterology: “Constipation and Defecation Problems”
- The American Journal of Gastroenterology: “Traveler's Constipation”
- University of Washington Medicine: “What You Want to Know about Travel Constipation and Diarrhea but Won’t Ask”
- Cleveland Clinic: “8 Tips to Keep You Regular While Traveling”
- Aspen Valley Hospital: “The Effects of Altitude on Visitors”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Avoid Contaminated Water During Travel”
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Tips for Preventing Constipation”