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Food- and Water-Borne Illnesses: How to Protect Yourself When Traveling

Water-Borne Illnesses Safety Tips

You must assume that all water in developing countries is unsafe. No matter how luxurious the hotel, it may use the same water and sewage system as the most impoverished areas in the country. To help protect yourself from a variety of water-borne illnesses, safe water can be purchased or made by boiling local water for at least 1 minute. Beer, wine, soda, hot tea, and coffee are all safe.

Three important tips to avoid illness from contaminated water:

  • Don’t brush your teeth with water from the tap
  • Don’t use ice (freezing does not sterilize water)
  • Always break the seal yourself on bottled water. It is a common practice for street vendors to refill old plastic water bottles and resell them to tourists

Safety Tips to Avoid Food-Borne Illnesses

Milk is not pasteurized, and meat is not inspected in many developing countries. You should avoid all dairy products unless you are sure they are pasteurized. All meat should be eaten well-done.

Fruits and vegetables

You may not think that fruits and vegetables would be a source for food-borne illnesses, but fresh salads are a major source of contamination and should be avoided. Vegetables are safe when cooked, and fruit that can be peeled, such as bananas and oranges, are safe.

Food on the go

Vendor food and airplane food (prepared locally for return trips) are other options that present a high-risk for food-borne illnesses.

Traveler’s Diarrhea

Despite precautions with water and food, as many as 40 percent of people will experience a mild but unpleasant bout of traveler’s diarrhea. This usually lasts from 3-5 days and is associated with cramps, bloating, and nausea.

Travelers’ diarrhea can be prevented by taking 2 tablets of Pepto Bismol 4 times a day while overseas, but this can be expensive and difficult to remember.

For longer excursions, early traveler’s diarrhea treatment with an antibiotic and an anti-motility drug such as Imodium, will shorten the course to less than 2 hours in many cases.

If you have a fever of over 101°F, blood or mucus in the stool, or diarrhea that lasts longer than 5 days, it is not simple travelers’ diarrhea, and you should consult a physician.