How to cope with food poisoning abroad

A risky salad

There you are, standing in front of street food grill, waiting for an elderly lady to make the small chicken plate you ordered to go. You don’t have a lot of time, and she seems to be going so slowly. You stare at her intently and notice for the first time how close her pieces of raw chicken are to the cooked ones. Come to think of it, they’re basically touching. This makes you a little uneasy, but you don’t want to be impolite and cancel your request, and besides, there is no time. Your twelve-hour bus ride leaves soon and this is the only option you found. Finally, your chicken seems to be cooked, its juices dripping merrily onto the grill as she lifts it up.

Wait! Now she’s wiping it against the raw chicken!

What?? Is there no better place to wipe off the excess juice? Normally this would be a deal breaker, but you have to go, and you didn’t have the forethought to buy any snacks for the next 12 hours. You know there is a possibility of getting sick, but really, you’ve been in the country for a month, maybe your stomach can ward off a few lonely viruses. With trepidation, you bite into the tasty chicken plate, blissfully ignorant of the ordeal you’re about to embark upon…

Healthy-looking Tostada with unwashed vegetables
Appealing color, unwashed lettuce. Alert!

Food poisoning, traveler’s diarrhea, whatever you want to call it, is not fun when traveling to a new place. You want to be at some ancient Greek temple for a memorable photo, not hugging a sketchy hotel toilet. Yet, food poisoning, also poetically called Turista, is also a staple of budget travel. Whether we like it or not, when traveling like locals and on a small budget, it’s bound to happen.

Don’t worry though, it’s not only a tourist thing. In Bolivia, for example, we learned that it is part of the inhabitants daily routine. Why? Hard to tell. From the non-existant fridges, with the meat standing in the sun to the lack of proper cooking, the absence of sanitation and high altitude, possible culprits are many. We just couldn’t identify a single one. Sometimes, it felt as if they were all competing for the right to make us sick. And they succeeded at an alarming rate.

How to prevent food poisoning while traveling?

Let’s face it, the first step should be making sure you don’t catch the fabled turista. You’re a budget traveler and, as such, you want to spend as little as possible on food. We are the same. And this very habit can be the cause of, let’s say, some digestive system discomfort.

In the end, there is no foolproof way to prevent getting food poisoning abroad but at least, here are some guidelines that may help reduce the odds and help you enjoy your trip a little bit more.

  • Start slow! This one we’ve heard so many time. Day one in a new country, don’t go trying everything. Your digestive system needs some time to adapt and if you rough it, it’ll thank you in its own way.
  • Wash your hands using soap. This may help keep other types of parasites and bacteria from ending in your food.
  • Trust your gut. If it looks sketchy, it possibly is. That doesn’t mean to stick with chain restaurants and such. But if you walk to a street food stand during peak hour and nobody’s eating there, consider it a bad sign.
  • Make sure what you buy has been cooked recently. A trend in many areas is to cook once a week and spend the remaining days trying to sell it. All that away from a fridge.
  • Don’t drink tap water! This really depends on the country but the general rule is cheap countries mean no water sanitation system. When even locals living in poverty don’t dare drink it, don’t push your luck!
  • Beware of fresh juices. Guatemala is renown for them but not all use clean water. Ask about it first!
  • Enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re awesome! But only if you do it right. Only eat if you can peel it or wash it with soap. Using contaminated tap water to wash an apple isn’t going to do much. Cooking them is also an option.
  • Milk, cheese and other market produces can be awesome but still beware, start with small portions.
  • Even if you buy from a store, check expiration date and ingredients. Sanitation regulations aren’t the same everywhere and some ingredients known to be toxic to humans and forbidden in the West are still found in developing countries.
  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat. Cooked chicken rubbed against raw chicken totally counts.
  • Consult with a travel clinic before your departure. They can help you stock on proper medicine before you head out backpacking the world.
  • Have a travel insurance that will cover your back. Sounds simple but not all travel bugs are created equal.

How to cope with food poisoning abroad?

tacos in flores
But it was so cheap…

So you’ve done your best but in the end, the local lack of hygiene won. You are now facing one of a traveler’s greatness challenges: food poisoning. In some cases, a few hours is all it takes but in others, we’ve been grounded for over a week. Is your trip over? We hope not. Here are some tips to help you get back adventuring as quickly as possible.

  1. Get a cheap hotel with a private bathroom (or at least a bathroom very close by).

    You’ll likely be using this thing a lot, and with food poisoning, you’ll need easy access. Bring toilet paper as well. Sadly, this is one part you can’t really avoid. Unless you’re already on a bus ride, avoid taking any medication that would ”contain” the problem. Your body needs to get rid of the toxins. Find a hotel where you can suffer in peace and head toward recovery for a penny. You won’t be using the pool any time soon anyway no need to pay extra.

  2. Rest.

    However frustrating it is to be spending your trip bed-ridden, this will help you get better. Take the day off and sleep. At times when your energy peaks up a little bit, you can always come here to read some travel inspiration. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you company.

  3. Find lemon-flavored things.

    We know this one sounds odd, but this is probably the most useful aid we have found to cope with stomach sickness. In Egypt, a kind (or perhaps irritated) hostel owner gave Dereck some tiny lemons when he was throwing up all night/day/week, and it alleviated the nausea and seemed to help.

    In Bolivia, limes and lemons were harder to find, but we found yellow Gatorade to be the most effective vice. It was the only thing I could keep down when I was sick with food poisoning in South America. While traveling Turkey, a lemon flavored popsicle turned out to be a temporary relief.

    We don’t know why but it has now become instinct. Soon as we’re sick, we’re on the hunt. It provides us with a chance to get some fluids, sugars, and electrolytes in and is always cheap and close by.

  4. The Pink God.

    This is the title Dereck affectionately gave Pepto-Bismol after being a savior to each of us during various travels. Bringing this medicine along takes forethought, but you could be glad you did. Regular small doses of it will help your digestive system in two ways. First, it keeps acid reflux down. The idea is that a lot of the acid reflux has to do with your body being seemingly unable to push down the nasty stuff you ate. The longer it stays in your body, the more it replicates and the worse your food poisoning.

    We’re not quite sure what magic is at work but it sure helps. In the same way, it’ll also reduce diarrhea and flatulence. Refer to the package for actual dosing and indications, obviously, we’re not health care professionals.


  5. Know when to ask for help.

    When we travel the two of us together, it’s pretty rare we’re both sick at the same time. This means one can check over the other and keep a sense of perspective. The more you get sick, the less likely you are to notice how far things have gone.

    If all of a sudden you’re vomiting blood, or have been bed-ridden for six days without being able to keep much, let’s face it, you might need professional help. You’ll be thankful you got some travel insurance at that point. Don’t hesitate to use it when you need it. Like we said earlier, not all travel bugs are equal and some can be particularly dangerous.

Have your own gruesome food poisoning story? Feel free to react! Just don’t go too far into details 😉 Dirt Cheap Travel Guide is no fun without readers like you. Travel is our passion and we love hearing from like-minded individuals.

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2 thoughts on “How to cope with food poisoning abroad”

  1. Kathleen Salinas

    Thanks for sharing your story. I enjoyed the food poisoning article.
    I once had food poisoning from a can of mackerel. While this a likely a rare occurrence because the can is cooked, it did occur. I now heat up any fish from a can unless it’s tuna from a well known brand.

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