If you’re anything like me, one of the greatest gifts of traveling is the opportunity to fully immerse in the local culture and eat traditional cuisine. Exotic fruits unknown to the western world, sizzling street food in bustling night markets, and remote village specialties made from guarded recipes centuries old are all part of the incredible foodie experience of travel. With all that is wonderful about treating your taste buds to new and novel flavors, eating adventurously may come with an unexpected cost — traveler’s illness. Some of the biggest foodie destinations such as Asia and Latin American can also be unfortunately the most troublesome. So you may have come here to figure out how you’ll eat all the tacos and margaritas in sight while simultaneously trying to figure out how to avoid getting sick in Mexico. Or perhaps your stomach is feeling a little off after sampling some fried noodles at a street market in Asia, and you’re wondering what to do next.
Wherever you are or may be visiting in the world, as a seasoned traveler myself, (and seasoned travel sickness-er) I’m here to share my best tips for preventing food and water-born illness abroad, while still eating (almost) everything in sight.
How to Avoid Getting Sick in Mexico, How to Avoid Delhi Belly or Montezuma’s Revenge, and How to Prevent or Stop Traveler’s Diarrhea Anywhere You Go
I must admit, this isn’t the sexiest travel topic to write about but it is one that I’ve become all-too-familiar with throughout my world excursions. Traveler’s Diarrhea, also known as traveler’s tummy, Montezuma’s Revenge, Dehli Belly/Bali Belly, or whatever other area-specific moniker it is known as can strike anyone at any moment, and really in any destination.
Symptoms typically include stomach upset and diarrhea, but the possibilities of vomiting, aches, fever, and chills are also not uncommon. Traveler’s Diarrhea is usually caused by contaminated food and water, and the main culprit of this type of food poisoning is usually the bacteria Escherichia coli (E-coli), which can present symptoms for anywhere from 1 – 7+ days. Traveler’s Diarrhea is the most common form of travel illness and can happen just about anywhere, however, the destinations with the highest risk are parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Mexico. Keep reading for the best tips on how to eat what you want and have a healthy trip.
Tip #1 – My (not so) Secret Weapon
Tip number 1 is going to start with my secret weapon — my holy grail to prevent, stop, and end Traveler’s Diarrhea. The absolute best thing you can do to eat adventurously and help prevent food and water-borne illness is to take the all-natural, over-the-counter supplement called Travelan. Travelan works to safely reduce the risk of Traveler’s Diarrhea by over 90% and is scientifically-backed and clinically proven. It is the one thing that has saved my stomach when eating out in Thailand, Bali, Mexico, and Morocco. When traveling with others who declined to take the supplement claiming they have a “stomach of steel,” I’ve watched them suffer while I remained perfectly fine. I’m trying hard not to make this a post sound like a whole commercial for Travelan (I promise there are more great tips below) but if I’m being completely honest, this is the ONE item I absolutely will not travel without.
If you’re curious about the mechanism by which Travelan works to prevent traveler’s illness (I know I was), the key ingredient is Bovine Colostrum enriched with anti-E.coli antibodies. All you have to do is take Travelan once before each meal and the antibodies will lay in the gastrointestinal tract, ready to neutralize the diarrhea-causing bacteria and prevent you from getting sick. Even when traveler’s sickness has already occurred, taking Travelan greatly reduces the associated symptoms and helps speed up the recovery.
Where to buy Travelan:
If you’re in the U.S., you can purchase Travelan on Amazon and Passport Health Clinics. Australians can purchase Travelan online or at all major pharmacies. Canadian readers can purchase Travelan on Amazon. For more information, you can visit Travelan’s website.
Tip #2 Avoid This Unassuming Suspect
A main concern for many people traveling to developing countries is whether or not the tap water is safe to drink, but often we forget to take the same precautions with ice. Mexico is notorious for making people ill even at 5-star resorts, so if you’re wondering, can you drink the water in Cancun? The answer is no, unless it’s bottled or boiled — more on that in a bit.
When traveling to countries where tap water is unsafe, you want to make sure the ICE in your beverage is not made from the same untreated tap. As a safety precaution, many resorts and restaurants will use bagged, store-bought, or catered ice which is safe to consume. This type of ice is often (but not always) cubed with a spherical hollow center — so if you see this, it’s a good sign that the ice is safe for drinking. Avoid shaved ice or any dessert / drink with crushed ice from an unknown source if you want to be safe. When in doubt, ask for no ice.
A funny story while dining at a well-established restaurant in Morocco; I asked the waiter if the water there was bottled and he said yes. I then asked if the ice was made with bottled or tap and the waiter responded “tap.” Then, when I asked if the tap water was good to drink in Morocco, with a coy smile on his face he answered, “no” and we both laughed. Needless to say, I asked for no ice.
As for drinking water, it should be bottled, boiled, or otherwise treated for impurities. Try to avoid buying bottled water off the street as sometimes people will rebottle and reseal tap water and sell it. Only buy water that you are confident is factory sealed, preferably from a grocery/convenience store, gas station, or other trusted establishment. For extra sensitive individuals, you may even want to brush your teeth with bottled water as well.
Tip #3 – Hotter is Better
Eating foods that are piping hot and fully-cooked is a good way to avoid getting sick, however, it isn’t always foolproof (here’s where Travelan comes in again!) It’s important to remember that food contamination can happen at any point, and is sometimes the fault of the food-handler or server.
Some of the worst food poisoning I’ve had abroad (before I knew about Travelan) was from a hot sandwich I consumed in one of my favorite destinations — Tel Aviv (Israel), one of the few places in the Middle East where tap water is considered safe to drink. I’ll never know if it was from the meat (which was steaming hot!) the bread, the fresh veggies, condiments, or the person who prepared it, but I do know that if I had taken my Travelan I probably would have been far better off.
There is a saying that goes, “cook it, boil it, peel it, or forget it” when it comes to food safety while traveling, and it is a good one to remember. This means avoiding salads and raw vegetables (which are often rinsed with untreated water) and only eating fruit that can be peeled. This tip is especially crucial if traveling to India, a country that is so rich in beauty and culture, but so poor in food and water sanitization.
It’s also a good idea to make sure food hasn’t been sitting out for too long, such as in the case of buffets, which are popular in India and many other parts of the world.
Lastly, when dining out, skip the condiments that are sitting out on the tables. You don’t know how long they’ve been sitting there and in what type of conditions.
Tip #4 – Be Street Smart About Street Food
Some of the best (and cheapest) food you can have while traveling is from vendors cooking up local specialties right off the street. Night markets in Asia are especially popular for street food, drawing in crowds of foodies from all over the world. Eating the wrong thing or at the wrong stall is a surefire way to get sick, however, there are a few things you can do to minimize your chances of illness when eating from street vendors.
The first is simply to exercise a little common sense and inspect the street food set up with your eyes to make sure things look nice and sanitary enough. Does the food look fresh or is it covered in flies? Is the cook being mindful of cross-contamination by using separate utensils for raw meat? Are they using gloves and/or a food wrapper to handle (and hand you) food? These simple things can go a long way.
Next, don’t eat street food that’s been sitting out, but rather, eat where they are making the food fresh in front of you. You also do not want to be one of the first customers of the day or night. The reason is that some vendors will cook and sell the leftovers from the previous day before cooking the fresh ingredients.
Another great tip is if you’re aimlessly walking through the street markets wanting to try one of the many stalls but not sure where to start, go wherever there are long lines or many people waiting. Lines are a good indication of repeat customers or known vendors, which means the food might be safer and tastier, too! In my experience, the longer the line = the better the food.
Lastly, in China and Taiwan especially, you need to be aware of places that use “gutter oil” AKA oil that has been recycled from food stalls, kitchens, and yes, even gutters and drains. Even some low-end restaurants use this type of illegal oil and the chances of getting sick from it are high, and prolonged ingestion can cause severe problems. Gutter oil can be really hard to detect but the Chinese government is taking steps to mitigate the problem, so again, I would recommend eating at the more popular stalls.
Most importantly, when eating street food don’t forget: take your Travelan.
Tip #5 – Do as the Locals do, Eat Where the Locals Eat
Dining at restaurants where you see many locals is a good indication that the food is probably safer, tastier, and more affordable. Avoid tourist trap eateries that make “local” dishes (but altered for the western pallet) at all costs. These are the restaurants that have big pictures and displays of each dish on the menu out front and virtually no local diners. It may be tempting because of their promise of air conditioning and free WiFi, but it’s just not worth the risk (and the food usually isn’t as great either.)
When visiting the Jema el Fnna square in Marrakech, Morocco, I wanted to buy some fresh-squeezed orange juice from one of the vendors (Morocco is known for having amazing oranges.) There must have been at least 10 orange juice stalls all within the same vicinity of each other, all seemingly the same. I decided to go with the stall that had the most local patronizing it, and I (and my stomach) were very happy with that choice.
The local rule also includes keeping to the authentic cuisine while eating at hotels and restaurants and avoiding western dishes like pizza and the like. I know the comfort food of home might be missed from time to time, but the same sanitization and cooking knowledge doesn’t always apply, and the lack of ingredients that are not native to the country means it’s usually not the freshest.
Another good practice to adopt for eating like locals is to eat during peak hours (local meal times) when the food is fresh and not prepped and sitting out for hours. This might mean eating at a time you’re not used to, say if the local custom is to eat dinner later or earlier than your usual. If a restaurant is popular but empty, the food might not be as fresh as prepped food could be sitting out for long periods of time. It’s better to eat when it is busy and the food is being made to order.
Tip #6 – Wash Your Hands!
Maybe you implemented all these tips, took your Travelan, and still got sick. All these recommendations are moot if we are the ones that are causing our own travel sickness. Bacteria can end up on our hands and then transferred to the food we eat thus causing us stomach troubles.
This is why it’s so important to thoroughly wash your hands with warm water and soap before every meal. It’s also a good idea to carry a small bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer for when you’re eating street food or other snacks and meals on the go. This is the last and final tip yet one of the most crucial because lack of proper hygiene can cause diarrhea and other stomach ailments just as much as any of the above.
If you’ve taken all the necessary precautions, took Travelan, washed your hands and STILL got sick, the most important thing to do is to drink plenty of fluids with electrolytes to avoid dehydration. If symptoms are severe, persist, or if you have a high fever, seek medical attention immediately.
We’ve all been there when suddenly, a wave of nausea hits as sweat drips from your forehead and your insides feel like they are being pulled in every direction, while simultaneously turning upside down as you race to find the nearest bathroom. There is no better way to ruin your vacation than swapping your epic views in the beautiful outdoors for the confines of your hotel room. If you want to make the most out of your next trip without severely limiting yourself to what you can eat, follow these tips and bring a box (or two or three) of Travelan with you, your stomach will definitely thank you.