Worried about getting food poisoning on your travels? Here’s my two-cents on how to avoid and deal with food poisoning when you are travelling whilst still enjoying one of the best things about exploring another country: the food! Obviously I am not a medical professional, so if you are feeling terrible, please do go and see a doctor and don’t just read this blog.
I can’t believe this is happening. I’m sweating, doubled over in pain and I know that the hedgehog-from-hell that has started to painfully move about in my stomach, is only the beginning. I look at my phone and to my dismay, I find that I am still only one hour in on a train journey from Probolinggo to Yogyakarta that is due to take eight hours.
Train toilets in any country are notorious for going feral pretty quickly (okay maybe Japan is the exception, because they do toilets like no one else - hair dryer for your bottom anyone? I’ll take it) and I just can’t face the prospect of my stomach exploding into this one. I look at Vincent, my go-to toilet inspector. He’s been and had a look. “It’s not great,” he says, “but you really should just go.”
But still, I wait. I don’t want to go. I try to ignore the cramping and the nausea, try to wait it out until I can get to what I know is a clean Airbnb in Yogyakarta, where I can have my sure to be horrendous bowel movements in peace in a pristine bathroom.
However, the Satanic Stomach Hedgehog is not on my side. Two hours left and I know that I either have to use the toilet or soil myself in front of an elderly couple. The man has been smiling at me for the full journey. I imagine that he would probably stop smiling after this.
Vincent looks at me firmly: “Just go.”
It’s a squat toilet horror movie. It smells. (Sorry folks, but I can’t chalk up nasty toilets anywhere as being a wonderful part of any travel experience. And trust me, I’ve been to many. I hate being ill and more than that, I hate being ill and having a crap toilet to be ill into. So shoot me.)
I walk in gingerly, taking stock of the situation. Some users have clearly missed the mark and there is something I identify as probably being faeces on the floor. I feel close to wretching. No Sasha, I tell myself, be brave. Breathe through your mouth, so you can’t smell anything. That seems to work. Then, wait? Is that the wrong advice? Do I actually want to inhale any of this stuff into my mouth?
My stomach spasms painfully again and there’s no more time for thinking.
Time for some Real Talk
As much as Instagram would love you to believe, travel isn’t all about beautiful girls looking off into the middle distance on a swing over the ocean. Sometimes travel is about feeling like you are never going to stop vomiting, until you resemble the dried up husk of the person you once were or worrying you might actually shit yourself to death. Or both. Lovely, I know. But this is #realtalk.
A dodgy stomach, traveller’s diarrhoea, food poisoning, Delhi Belly…whatever you want to call it, is something that most travellers will experience at some point on a journey. Some people are lucky and manage to never go through it or have an iron-clad constitution (yes, Alia, I am looking at you). Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.
This sounds shit (no pun intended). How do I avoid this?
Whilst it is often difficult to determine exactly what gave you a dodgy stomach, there are ways to minimise the chances of getting food poisoning. Officially, it goes something like this:
Don’t drink any drinks with ice.
Don’t eat any salads or peeled fruit.
Don’t use tap water to brush your teeth.
Don’t drink local water
Be wary of eating street food
I will be the first to admit that these are rules that I usually don’t adhere to. And no, this isn’t the reason that I get food poisoning. I’ve had wonderful milkshakes and fruit juices in many countries (the perfect thing to quench your thirst on a hot day), eaten watermelon and papaya served in small plastic bags in Malaysia and Cambodia and gorged myself on street food in countless places. And I’ve never had a problem. I usually don’t brush my teeth with bottled water (unless the water that comes out of the tap is brown or something) and I have even been known to drink local water if it is filtered.
Having said this, I do have some tips on how you can avoid food poisoning when travelling and still manage to enjoy all the tasty local treats that your heart desires. Because that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
1) Is your food hot, steaming, boiling or deep fried? You are off to a good start
Basic science 101: cooking things at high temperatures is likely to kill off most of the nasty germs and bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Lukewarm or cold food, on the other hand, is a fun breeding ground for them. Case in point: when we were travelling in Ella in Sri Lanka, we stopped off at a place serving a set rice and curry menu for lunch. When it arrived I noticed that the rice was barely warm and the curry was still partially cold. I was hungry, so I ate it anyway. Cue projectile vomiting in the dark outside some poor guy’s house an hour later.
2) If local people are eating there and the place is busy, that’s a good sign
I tend to follow my mum’s advice on restaurants. If I go somewhere and it is so empty that, as my mum would say in Sinhala ‘the flies are scattering’, then I usually don’t eat there. A busy restaurant that is serving local people means that there will be a high turnover of food and you are less likely to be served something that has been sitting around all day at room temperature.
In Zambia, I ate local food in the village for three years, drank homemade tinctures and juices and ate scones made in an underground oven. Zero issues. During two trips to Livingstone, where I ate Western food in big fancy restaurants, I got food poisoning. Maybe I am allergic to fancy restaurants.
3) Don’t be dirty - wash your hands!
You might think you are Mr Clean, but it is still always worth washing your hands before you start munching. If there’s no soap and water around, use some hand sanitiser - it usually comes in small easy-to-carry-around bottles. Basically, don’t be that nasty guy on Fox News who hasn’t washed his hands for 10 years. Contrary to his opinion, germs are a real thing.
4) If a place looks like it has some dodgy hygiene practices, go somewhere else
Let’s be real - the food standards when you are travelling are not always going to be the same as what you are used to back home. People might touch your food with their bare hands, things may not be stored in the cleanest of containers and some of the kitchens might look as though they have seen better days. This doesn’t mean that you are going to get sick and die.
However, feel free to have a look and decide carefully whether you are happy to eat in a place. If containers of food are covered or have fans over them to keep flies away, that’s a good sign. If you see people preparing the food in front of you and the dishes are all steaming hot (as opposed to lukewarm and sitting out all day) that’s another positive. In some places, they might use utensils to handle food or disposable gloves - huge thumbs up. On the other hand, wiping the floor with a cloth and then using that same cloth to wipe the tables and the plates is a big no no. I will be taking myself elsewhere.
5) Do a smell and taste test
You’ve settled on a place, decided on what you want to eat, ordered it and it’s finally arrived. Apart from, something is not quite right. It tastes or smells a bit funny.
If something doesn’t taste or smell the way you expected, don’t feel compelled to eat it. Order something else or go somewhere else. A little bit of wasted money is nothing compared to wasting several days of your trip as you recover from food poisoning.
As I write this, I am really wishing I had followed this advice. I am recovering from a stomach bug right now, all caused by my desire to finish some olives that I kind of knew were past their best, after the initial taste test. Now I wish I had just chucked them.
How do I know if I have food poisoning?
Trust me, your body is damn sure to let you know. That projectile vomiting is going to be the first little clue. Okay, seriously, if you have a mild to a more serious case of food poisoning, you are likely to experience the following symptoms:
Stomach cramps and bloating
Muscle aches and pains
Arghhh I think I’ve got food poisoning! What should I do?
1) Stay hydrated
Constantly vomiting and having episodes of diarrhoea can make you dehydrated really quickly. Your body is losing vital salts and electrolytes so you need to make sure that you are replacing them. If you find that your stomach is so sensitive that you are throwing up even water, try just taking small sips to help it to stay down.
If you have them with you, rehydration salts are a great way of replenishing lost salts and electrolytes, as is juice and coconut water. If you don’t have rehydration salts with you, you can make your own rehydration solution (or better yet, get someone else to make it for you) by boiling one litre of water and adding six teaspoons of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt. It tastes disgusting but it helps.
Yes, I know you are absolutely desperate to see Borobodur, but it has been around since the 8th century and it isn’t going anywhere. Your body needs time to rest and recover, so you are best off staying in bed for a few days and sleeping or watching re-runs of the Mindy Project or Mr Men (yes, these are my go-to programmes when I am ill).
3) Stick to boring bland food
Take your adventurous taste buds down a level and stick to the blandest food you know while you are recovering. After food poisoning, you might find it hard to digest dairy and foods high in fibre, so stick to eating small amounts of white bread, plain white pasta, white rice, potatoes and bananas for your first couple of meals. Rejoice - this is the only time that crappy beige food is good for you.
4) Temporarily avoid foods that will upset your stomach
Put down that lime pickle! Dairy products, spicy, greasy or fried foods and anything high in fibre (nuts, seeds, oats, raw vegetables), and caffeine can all irritate your already sensitive digestive system, so it is best to avoid these things until you start to feel better.
4) Stay somewhere comfortable
When you’ve got food poisoning, where you are staying can make all the difference between feeling like you are definitely dying and feeling like you are dying just a little bit. Swapping from shared bathroom facilities and a dorm at a hostel to a private room with an ensuite bathroom will allow you to be sick without worrying that someone is going to be banging on the bathroom door and you can rest up in peace.
5) Take anti-diarrhoea medication if necessary
Diarrhoea is your body’s natural way of expelling the nasty toxins that caused you to be ill in the first place, so generally you shouldn’t be taking things like Imodium when you have food poisoning. However, if you can’t rest and find that you are going to be travelling for 11 hours on a bus/train/plane and are really suffering with diarrhoea, you can take medication to ease the symptoms and spare your fellow passengers the horror of you filling your pants.
6) Know when to seek medical attention
If you can’t stop vomiting or have had diarrhoea for more than two days, see blood in your vomit or stool, are struggling to stay hydrated or have signs of severe dehydration (dizziness, dry mouth and lips, dark coloured urine) it is time to see a doctor. Cases of severe dehydration sometimes require a stay in hospital.
And on that note, make sure you have some decent travel insurance. We are currently covered by True Traveller, who provide low cost comprehensive travel insurance for adventure travellers. I’ve claimed once on the insurance and it was a straightforward process - my claim was assessed promptly and I received some money back within 5 days.
So there you have it, my advice on how you can best avoid a run in with a horrid stomach bug and what to do if you do end up getting ill.
Trying street food and local cuisines is all part of the travel experience and also offers you a great insight into other cultures, so don’t avoid trying the local grub just because you are afraid of getting sick. Just choose carefully and if you think it’s all fine - munch away.
And now, before you get sick of me, I’ll wrap this up.
What do you do to avoid stomach problems on the road? Any tips for dealing with the Satanic Stomach Hedgehog? Let us know in the comments below!