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How to Avoid Food Poisoning When Traveling Abroad

It’s any traveler’s worst nightmare: You’ve spent time planning your trip, and just hours after eating a meal at your destination, your stomach begins to churn and you start to feel nauseous. Before you know it, you’re too sick to do anything other than stay at the hotel.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), traveler’s diarrhea is the most predictable illness among holidaymakers. In fact, food poisoning affects 30% to 70% of travelers who consume food or water that is contaminated by infectious organisms such as bacteria, parasites, and viruses.

Food poisoning is an awful experience no matter when it happens, but it can really become an issue when it happens during your travels for many different reasons. After all, you might not know where to get medical care or have a schedule to follow.

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Why Does Food Poisoning Often Happen When Traveling?

In the past, people believed that food poisoning could easily be prevented by sticking to standard recommendations, such as peeling, boiling, and cooking food. However, studies show that people can still become ill if they follow these guidelines. The likely main culprit when it comes to food poisoning when traveling is poor hygiene practices. While countries such as the U.S. have strict food safety standards, many other countries don’t. Some street vendors do not wash their hands after touching raw meat or other potentially contaminated items. 

Aside from poor hygiene practice, it’s also possible for travelers to get food poisoning when they are exposed to foreign bacteria. Since their system is not familiar with the bacteria, it can cause problems even though it might not be harmful to the locals.

The common bacterial infections include: 

  • E. coli: Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a type of bacteria that is commonly found in the intestines of humans and animals. While most E. coli strains are harmless, some are capable of causing severe foodborne illnesses, such as abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting.
  • Salmonella: Salmonella is a type of bacteria that can cause food poisoning. It is commonly found in raw or undercooked poultry, eggs, and other food products. Consuming contaminated food can lead to symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, and vomiting.
  • Listeria: Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterium that causes a severe foodborne illness called listeriosis. It is found in soil, water, and animals. Listeriosis affects individuals with weakened immune systems, especially pregnant women. Symptoms may include fever, muscle aches, nausea, and diarrhea. 
  • Norovirus: Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that causes gastroenteritis, commonly known as the stomach flu. It spreads through contaminated food, water, or surfaces and can lead to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. 
  • Hepatitis A: Hepatitis A is a viral infection that affects the liver. It spreads through the consumption of food or water contaminated with fecal matter containing the virus. Symptoms may include fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), and dark urine.
  • Giardiasis: Giardiasis is an intestinal infection caused by the parasite Giardia lamblia. It spreads through contaminated food or water, often in areas with inadequate sanitation. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, bloating, and weight loss. 
  • Roundworms: Roundworms are a type of parasitic worm that can infect humans, usually through ingesting contaminated food or water or through contact with soil containing roundworm eggs. Infections can vary in severity and may cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. 
  • Tapeworms: Tapeworms are a type of parasitic worm that can live in the intestines of humans and animals. Infection occurs by consuming undercooked meat contaminated with tapeworm larvae. Symptoms can vary depending on the type of tapeworm but include abdominal pain, nausea, weakness, and weight loss. 

Ways to Prevent Food Poisoning When Traveling

While nicknames like Delhi Belly and Montezuma’s Revenge sound fun, having food poisoning during your travels is far from enjoyable. The good news is that you can prevent food poisoning and stay healthy overseas by following some simple rules.

1. Consult your general practitioner

First and foremost, it’s important to consult a general practitioner or travel clinic for recommendations on any medications based on the country you’ll be traveling to. Some doctors may provide you with a course of azithromycin or zithromax to help combat E. coli.

Additionally, given the extent of contaminated water in underdeveloped countries, doctors may also administer a Hepatitis A vaccine to prevent any illnesses stemming from contaminated food or water.

2. Wash your hands with soap before eating anything

Washing your hands with soap before eating a meal is an easy and effective way to prevent infection. Your palms and fingers can carry bacteria and germs into your mouth if you do not wash them before eating. You should also carry hand sanitizer and antiseptic wipes in case there is no soap.

3. Drink safe water

Many travelers get sick from unclean water and ice. Water tends to be safe if it is bottled or sterilized. Make sure the seal is intact when purchasing bottled beverages since bottles can be refilled with unsanitary liquids. Likewise, only add ice to your drinks if you know it is made with purified or bottled water. You should also check if tap water is safe to drink in the area before taking a sip.

4. Eat food that is steaming hot

Germs and bacteria that cause digestive problems cannot survive in hot temperatures. On the contrary, lukewarm or cool temperatures support their growth. Food items that are smoking or steaming with heat are fresher and, at the very least, hot. Consuming hot beverages and foods, such as teas and soups, is a good option if you aren’t sure.

5. Pay attention to signs of food hygiene

Food standards vary all over the world. While it might not happen in your home country, in many places, it is common to handle food with bare hands or leave food out. With that said, there are some signs you can watch for when choosing where to eat to avoid food poisoning, like:

  • Utensils or tongs are used to handle food.
  • Food covers (e.g. saran wrap) and spinning fans keep flies off.
  • Dishes are made to order.
  • Food is smoking or steaming hot.
  • Hair covers and/or gloves are worn.
  • Staff have access to sinks with soap and water.

6. Be wary of dairy

Dairy lovers fret not. You can still enjoy dairy while traveling, but you just have to be cautious since dairy contains live bacteria that can spoil. Check the following before consuming dairy abroad, especially in developing countries:

  • How it is stored – Is it kept cold at all times or do power outages affect refrigeration?
  • The consistency – Has it melted and changed shape? If so, it’s been re-frozen.
  • The way it is served – Is it cold or lukewarm?
  • Flavor and odor – Does it taste and smell like it should?

7. Be wary of ice

Most people know to avoid drinking tap water, but they often forget that ice can also cause food poisoning. If you’re not careful, those refreshing drinks on the streets may cause severe illnesses. As a result, you should avoid iced drinks altogether.

8. Eat where it is busy

While the goal for many travelers is to experience food and live like locals, a good rule of thumb is to eat where it is busy. A busy local restaurant is usually a sign that fresh food is prepared and that there is a high turnover of food, reducing the chances of food poisoning.

What Are The Symptoms of Food Poisoning?

Whether you get food poisoning from raw seafood or undercooked meat, the result is the same. Symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramps and pains
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

Additionally, symptoms may vary depending on the type of bacteria causing the food poisoning and can range in severity. Food poisoning symptoms can occur right after eating or several hours later, and can last from one to five days.

What To Do If You Get Food Poisoning While Traveling

If you are unlucky enough to contract food poisoning during your vacation, there are some things you can do to speed up your recovery so you can enjoy the rest of your trip.

  1. Drink lots of water and fluids with electrolytes.
  2. Gradually incorporate solid foods (and go back to liquids if you start feeling sick).
  3. Stay away from foods that can upset your digestive tract, such as spicy or high-fiber foods and dairy products.
  4. Know when to see a doctor, especially at the first sign of loose stools.

When to Pay a Visit to the Doctor

It is best to see a doctor if you have symptoms that last for more than a couple of days, or if they worsen over one or two days. You should see a doctor immediately if:

  • You have a high fever.
  • There is any blood in your vomit or stool.
  • You are taking any diuretics.
  • Symptoms come on suddenly.

How Travel and International Health Insurance Can Help with Food Poisoning

If your illness is severe enough to require overseas hospitalization for days, or even weeks, travel and/or international health insurance can certainly come in handy. Instead of paying a hefty bill out of your own pocket, the right insurance plan will offer comprehensive coverage and peace of mind.

All travel and international health insurance policies vary, and so do the details of cover. We at Pacific Prime Hong Kong can help you choose the right insurance plan for your needs. Contact us today to find out how we can help you find the best international health insurance available.

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