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Food Poisoning While Traveling

Posted in Our Blog on June 14, 2024

There is absolutely nothing worse in this world than being sick while away from home especially when you are dealing with food poisoning while traveling. Today, we are going to dive into how to avoid it but also what to do should you get sick while traveling, especially abroad.

By some metrics, gastrointestinal infections related to food or water affect 30 to 70 percent of all travelers during or immediately after their trips, according to a 2015 study in BMJ Clinical Evidence. Each year, one in six Americans and nearly one in 10 people worldwide suffer from such illnesses caused by bacteria (E. coli, salmonella, listeria), viruses (norovirus, hepatitis A), or parasites (giardiasis, roundworms, tapeworms).

Lower-income countries have a reputation for putting travelers at a higher risk for food poisoning, but people are just as likely to be sickened from an improperly handled meal in Italy or Australia—or from some sushi at their local supermarket.

What Causes Food Poisoning?

There are 35 major known pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses, including norovirus, salmonella, E. coli, clostridium perfringens, and campylobacter. Depending on the bacteria, parasite, or virus, symptoms could include a few hours to a week of diarrhea and vomiting, plus stomach cramps, fever, or body aches. The most likely culprits? Raw or undercooked chicken, turkey, or meat; raw milk; raw fruits and vegetables; shellfish; and food stored in unsafe temperatures (e.g. an open-air buffet) or prepared in an unsanitary way.

Did you know that 180 countries have tap water that is unsafe to drink? This includes some very popular vacation spots such as The Bahamas and Mexico. This means you can’t brush your teeth or even wash your hands with this water, so all water for pretty much everything you need to do would involve an extra purchase of clean bottled water. “Giardia parasite is pretty common with contaminated water,” says Cindy Chung, a doctor at Kaiser San Rafael Pediatrics in California. “When a kid comes into my office with sudden diarrhea, I ask, ‘Have you been camping? Did you go to the beach? Have you traveled?’”

What To Do If You Get Food Poisoning While Traveling

There is unfortunately no easy way to get over this as it often just has to run its course and hope for no complications. It is highly recommended that you seek medical attention when you are sick with food poisoning, even if it is abroad.

To combat the discomfort during this unpleasant period, doctors recommend ample fluids to prevent dehydration and over-the-counter painkillers (ibuprofen, naproxen) for stomach cramps.

To stay hydrated, Chung recommends Pedialyte or low-sugar Gatorade. “Too much sugar makes you feel worse when you have vomiting and diarrhea,” she says. For severe cases, especially for children or the elderly, consider having a doctor prescribe ondansetron (Zofran), a medicine that slows down vomiting so you can drink more fluids.

You may be able to cancel or reschedule travel if you’re too ill to move. Travel insurance sometimes considers food poisoning a valid reason to make flight changes. “But you can’t go to the doctor the day after your missed flight and get a retroactive diagnosis,” says Michelle Couch-Friedman, an ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and founder of Consumer Rescue, a consumer advocacy organization.

Tips Before Travel

There is no sure fire way of preventing food poisoning while traveling 100%, but there are some tips that many doctors recommend.

Worried about getting sick on a trip? Consult your general practitioner or a travel clinic for recommendations on medications or vaccinations based on your destination. “We might give you a three-day course of azithromycin (Zithromax) because, with traveling, one of the most common bacteria is E. coli,” says Chung. “But we tell patients not to use it unless their stools have blood.” A doctor may give you a hepatitis A vaccine to prevent illness from contaminated food or water.

To help ward off diarrhea, experts at Mount Sinai recommend taking two Pepto-Bismol tablets, four times a day, before and during your trip. This advice is based on a landmark 1987 study of students traveling to Mexico, which showed that Pepto’s active ingredient, bismuth subsalicylate, reduced the incidence of traveler’s diarrhea by approximately 60 percent.

“Generally, E. coli is the most common cause for traveler’s diarrhea, and the medication may help prevent the bacteria from taking hold and [you] developing any symptoms,” says Michael Bolaris, chair of pediatrics and chief of infectious disease at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey, California. Bolaris cautions that taking bismuth subsalicylate might temporarily give travelers harmless black stools or tongues.

Pack electrolyte powderswater purification tabletsfiltered water bottles, and hand sanitizer as well as anti-diarrhea, anti-nausea, and anti-inflammatory medications. Keep supplies in your carry-on, in case of mid-flight sickness or lost luggage.

Remember that the water in airplane bathrooms isn’t potable. “You may actually be introducing yucky microbes by washing your hands prior to a meal or brushing your teeth,” says Couch-Friedman. “Bring a bottle of spring water into the bathroom to brush your teeth, and use hand sanitizer. Otherwise, you could fast-track yourself to gastrointestinal problems.”

During travel see if your hotel or accommodation has a kettle or large pot to boil water if you are unable to buy water or are concerned with single use products. Bringing your own water bottle that you can clean properly is a really good idea to ensure that you can consume the boiled water. That doesn’t mean you have to forgo street food in Southeast Asia or taco stands in Mexico City. Bolaris’ rule? If you can’t clean it or peel it, don’t eat it. Chung advises travelers to watch how vendors prep food. “Are they using utensils, gloves, or bare hands?” When in doubt, stick to piping hot dishes—grilled meats or fried fritters—and shun raw seafood and lukewarm stews.

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