Antibiotic resistance and advice for travellers

People returning from abroad can import antibiotic-resistant bacteria – especially if they were hospitalized during their stay.

Danger of colonization abroad

The increase in international travel has facilitated the rapid spread of resistant bacteria, which are already highly prevalent in certain countries – notably in water and food products. Several studies have shown that international travellers often come back home with resistant bacteria, whether they have been ill or not.

Holidays in faraway countries are often ruined by so-called tourist’s diarrhoea, a usually innocuous intestinal infection lasting no more than 3 to 4 days. But the responsible bacteria, which may well be antibiotic-resistant, can be brought back to a country such as Switzerland and passed on to vulnerable people. Furthermore, the resistance genes can be transmitted to other bacteria that cause disease.

Sometimes travellers ask their doctor for a prescription of antibiotics before setting off on a trip overseas, with a view to treating a possible case of diarrhoea by themselves. Self-medication with antibiotics should only be envisaged as a last resort: most cases of diarrhoea resolve spontaneously, and drinking plenty of fluids is the treatment of choice. It should be borne in mind that antibiotics also have adverse effects on the intestinal flora. Indeed, taking antibiotics in areas where antibiotic resistance is high (such as south-east Asia) may well result in encouraging the development of these resistant bacteria in the gut.

Medical tourism

People obtaining medical interventions in other countries – especially those undergoing operations – constitute a major transmission route for resistant bacteria. So-called medical tourism is therefore to be considered with much caution. In Switzerland, on admission to a hospital (whether in the private or public sectors), it is necessary to inform healthcare personnel of any hospitalisation that may have occurred abroad during the last 12 months. This is because multi-resistant bacterial strains (including those that are resistant to several antibiotics at the same time) principally cross borders through travel and medical tourism. Their early detection can help avoid further transmission and also makes it easier to ensure the right treatment.

Further information

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Last modification 15.11.2023

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Federal Office of Public Health FOPH
Communicable Diseases Division
Strategies, Principles and Programmes Section
Schwarzenburgstrasse 157
3003 Bern
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