A bout of food poisoning is a miserable experience anytime, but it can be particularly problematic when you’re traveling for a host of reasons:
According to the CDC, approximately 48 million Americans get sick every year with food poisoning, around 128,000 of those are hospitalized, and about 3,000 die each year of foodborne illness.
The most common foodborne illnesses are:
All fancy names for the illness that causes a person to be very, very sick.
Food poisoning is particularly dangerous for young children, pregnant women, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems – all of whom have a greater chance of becoming more severely sick and having more serious problems like miscarriages and liver failure. If you, or your child, is in the higher risk group, see your doctor before you travel for advice and what to pack in your travel medical kit.
In many countries, the local water supply is simply not as clean as it is in more developed countries. In addition, some vendors simply refill empty plastic water bottles using the unfiltered local water from the tap.
Remember that brushing your teeth using the tap water is a common way that people end up getting sick too, so keep a bottle of clean water by the bathroom sink and consider a UV sterilizer for your toothbrush. There are now many small, travel-sized gadgets that will store and sterilize your toothbrush.
For more information, see Safe Drinking Water Tips for Travelers.
Pay attention to what you are eating when you travel. Food that is improperly cooked – that is, it’s not cooked to a hot temperature – retains the bacteria that causes food poisoning.
Uncooked seafood is the leading culprit of food poisoning on international trips. The same is true for foods that are washed in local tap water and then served.
The food from street vendors can give a traveler a sense of living locally, but in some places, street vendors are not permitted and/or subject to the same inspection given to restaurants and may sell food that is lower quality and unsafe. Often, you can use the Internet to get information and reviews on local dining options at your destination.
That said, you should always inspect the appearance of the dining establishment before indulging in the food. Look around at the general cleanliness of the place, including tablecloths, utensils, and menus to determine the eatery’s overall cleanliness and level of hygiene. Don’t like what you see? Be brave and excuse yourself to find something better.
If you choose food from a street vendor, choose one that the locals line up for. Chances are that they’ve been there before and trust that particular vendor. Of course, asking the locals where they like to eat is also a great way to weed out the best places to dine.
In some cases, a traveler may have picked up a bacteria or microbe elsewhere and only by washing your hands thoroughly before touching your food or eating anything can you be sure you haven’t contributed to the problem.
Washing your hands thoroughly, according to the CDC means:
So, what’s a traveler to do if the tap water is suspect? Follow the steps and bring alcohol-based sanitizers or hand-wipes to use after the washing above. This way, you get the basic dirt and debris off and then sterilize as well. Plus, if the area where you are doesn’t have running water or soap, you can rely solely on the sanitization materials.
This step was odd when we first encountered it, but it makes sense when you think about it. Your body can fight off food poisoning better when it’s minimally affected with smaller portions versus a very large meal.
Plus, the side effects – vomiting and diarrhea – are significantly reduced when there’s less of it for the body to eliminate.
Ordering and consuming smaller portions of foods that are suspect to you is one way to minimize the overall effect if it turns out your suspicions were correct.
Parents are already very familiar with this concept, but bringing along emergency rations on your travels, and replenishing your supply with trusted items as you go, is the best way to be sure that you are not exposing yourself, or your children, to potentially contaminated foods when the dining options are limited, stomachs are growling, and patience is in short supply.
Pre-packaged foods like cereals, nuts, cookies, pretzels, and even fruit that can be peeled (after washing your hands, of course!) are a great way to stave off the hunger pains until you find a dining place you trust.
Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.