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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, the hotel bathroom has become your favorite place and you’re too sick to do anything other than stay there. Unfortunately, this scenario happens all too often.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), traveler’s diarrhea is the most predictable illness amongst 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.

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.

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. 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. If you don’t wash your hands before eating, the bacteria and germs on your palms and fingers can make their way into your mouth. You should also carry hand sanitizer and antiseptic wipes in case there is no soap.

2. 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.

3. 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. Boiling hot beverages and foods such as teas and soups are a good option if you aren’t sure.

4. 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.

5. 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?

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.

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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Content Creator at Pacific Prime Hong Kong
Jantra Jacobs is a content writer at Pacific Prime. On a typical work day, she writes and edits articles, guides and anything else word-related. She aims to produce content that is easy for readers to understand and enjoyable at the same time.

When she’s not writing, she’s likely searching for a new restaurant or cafe to try, reading or doing yoga.