Traveler’s diarrhea (known in Southeast Asia as “Bali Belly” and in Mexico as turista or “Montezuma’s Revenge”) sometimes persists, even among prudent vacationers. You can suffer turista for a week after simply traveling from California to Philadelphia or New York. Doctors say the familiar symptoms of runny bowels, nausea, and sour stomach result from normal local bacterial strains to which newcomers’ systems need time to adjust. Unfortunately, the dehydration and fatigue from heat and travel reduce your body’s natural defenses and sometimes lead to a persistent cycle of sickness at a time when you least want it.
Time-tested protective measures can help your body either prevent or break this cycle. Many doctors and veteran travelers swear by Pepto-Bismol for soothing sore stomachs and stopping diarrhea. Acidophilus, the bacteria found in yogurt, is widely available in the United States in tablets and aids digestion. Warm manzanilla (chamomile) tea, used widely in Mexico (and by Peter Rabbit’s mother), provides liquid and calms upset stomachs. Temporarily avoid coffee and alcohol, drink plenty of manzanilla tea, and eat bananas and rice for a few meals until your tummy can take regular food.
Although powerful antibiotics and antidiarrhea medications such as Lomotil and Imodium are readily available over farmacia counters, they may involve serious side effects and should not be taken in the absence of medical advice. If in doubt, consult a doctor.
Chagas’ Disease and Dengue Fever
Chagas’ disease, spread by the “kissing” (or, more appropriately, “assassin”) bug, is a potential hazard in the Mexican tropics. Known locally as a vinchuca, the triangular-headed, three-quarter-inch (two-cm) brown insect, identifiable by its yellow-striped abdomen, often drops upon its sleeping victims from the thatched ceiling of a rural house at night. Its bite is followed by swelling, fever, and weakness and can lead to heart failure if left untreated. Application of drugs at an early stage can, however, clear the patient of the trypanosome parasites that infect victims’ bloodstreams and vital organs. See a doctor immediately if you believe you’re infected.
Most of the precautions against malaria-bearing mosquitoes also apply to dengue fever, which does occur (although uncommonly) in outlying tropical areas of Mexico. The culprit here is a virus carried by the mosquito species Aedes aegypti. Symptoms are acute fever, with chills, sweating, and muscle aches. A red, diffuse rash frequently results, which may later peel. Symptoms abate after about five days, but fatigue may persist. A particularly serious, but fortunately rare, form, called dengue hemorrhagic fever, afflicts children and can be fatal. See a doctor immediately. Although no vaccines or preventatives, other than deterring mosquitoes, exist, you should nevertheless see a doctor immediately.
For more good tropical preventative information, get a copy of the excellent pamphlet distributed by the International Association of Medical Advice to Travelers (IAMAT, see Medical Care).
Scorpions and Snakes
While camping or staying in a palapa or other rustic accommodation, watch for scorpions, especially in your shoes, which you should shake out every morning. Scorpion stings and snakebites are rarely fatal to an adult but are potentially very serious for a child. Get the victim to a doctor calmly but quickly. (For more snakebite details, see Reptiles and Amphibians.)
While snorkeling or surfing, you may suffer a coral scratch or jellyfish sting. Experts advise you to wash the afflicted area with ocean water and pour alcohol (rubbing alcohol or tequila) over the wound, then apply hydrocortisone cream available from the farmacia.
Injuries from sea-urchin spines and sting-ray barbs are painful and can be serious. Physicians recommend similar first aid for both: remove the spines or barbs by hand or with tweezers, then soak the injury in as-hot-as-possible fresh water to weaken the toxins and provide relief. Another method is to rinse the area with an antibacterial solution—rubbing alcohol, vinegar, wine, or ammonia diluted with water. If none are available, the same effect may be achieved with urine, either your own or someone else’s in your party. Get medical help immediately.
All health hazards don’t come from the wild. A number of Mexico travelers have complained of complications from black henna tattoos. When enhanced by the chemical dye PPD, an itchy rash results that can lead to scarring. It’s best to play it safe: If you must have a vacation tattoo, get it at an established, professional shop.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition