A bout of food poisoning can take your trip from awesome to awful in a single bite. But if you’re careful, you can still indulge in your favorite cuisines and make it back home unscathed.
“The good news is that there are parts of our food supply that have gotten safer over time, like hamburger meat,” said Bill Marler, a food safety advocate and attorney with a focus on foodborne illness. “That being said, it’s not unusual for me to order steak well-done. Think of it as risk avoidance.”
Food poisoning has the potential to be a serious condition, with symptoms presenting as diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and cramps, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Marler said the top pathogens worldwide include Shigella, salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli and listeria, in that order.
“Each one of those bugs has different incubation periods. Listeria is three to 60 days so if you eat some tainted cheese in France and fly home, and 30 to 60 days later you get listeria, it might have caused it.”
So, why does it seem travelers get sick on foods locals eat every day? “The short story is that they do likely get sick but most countries do not track these type of diseases like the U.S. and Canada do,” says Marler. ”Perhaps a more complex answer it that [locals] may have built up immunities... because of earlier exposures.”
But a fear of food poisoning shouldn’t keep you from knocking adventures off your bucket list. “It’s about playing it safe without being completely paranoid,” he said.
While these tips can also help you minimize your risk of food poisoning at home, you can’t always guarantee quick and easy access to a bathroom or medical facility while traveling. Here’s what you can do to minimize your risk.
Boost your immune system
It’s helpful to do your due diligence before your trip. Jeff Nelken, a food safety expert and coach, suggested starting a regimen of probiotics to strengthen your gut. “Probiotics keep the digestion in balance. I prefer kefir [a probiotic-rich type of liquid yogurt] a month before traveling,” he said.
Another pre-trip item for your checklist? “Get the hepatitis A vaccine before you travel anywhere,” Marler said. Hepatitis A is endemic in areas like Africa and Southeast Asia — it’s often spread through contaminated food or water — and can put you at risk for a host of foodborne illnesses. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people make a complete recovery from the disease after several weeks, but in rare cases, it can lead to liver damage or death. The vaccine is available at most pharmacies, travel clinics and at your doctor’s office.
Avoid ready-to-eat food
Instead of a cheese platter or dessert, order hot foods that you know for a fact have been made to order, according to Marler, like soup or stir-fry. The heat kills bacteria, and you can be sure it hasn’t been sitting out in room temperature for hours.
Avoid street food
Walk through any bustling metropolis, and the aroma of street vendors might just be one of the most intoxicating parts of your trip. But according to Nelken, their sanitation is generally unregulated. If you’re dying to dig in, your best bet is to consult your hotel’s nurse or doctor, as opposed to fellow locals or the concierge so you can find out the safest spots for those from out of town to eat like a local.
“You can still take pictures [of the street food] and drink bottled water without having the risk,” Marler said.
And tap water
Buying bottled water is not the most eco-friendly option, but it’ll save you in the long run — even when you brush your teeth, according to Marler. “[Tap water] is generally safe in first-world countries like Japan and parts of Europe. But the bacteria are really small since 50 E. coli are enough to kill you and 100,000 would fit on the head of a pin. It’s not like you can visualize this stuff and look for fecal matter. You can’t taste or smell it,” he said.
If you don’t have access to bottled water, boiled water will do just fine. Use said boiled water to wash your hands frequently. “You don’t think about it but if you pick up something on your hand and eat with your fingers the bacteria gets in your mouth,” Marler said.
Nelken also suggested avoiding ice or iced drinks unless you’re positive the restaurant’s water supply has been treated.
Steer clear of raw produce
Many restaurants use pre-bagged lettuce and vegetables, and you have no idea how well they were washed.
“Part of the reason is historical,” said Marler. “[In America] we’ve had, over the last year, romaine lettuce outbreaks with no real clear fix by the FDA. There was an outbreak of spinach in 2006 from a 20-acre spinach farm that had some pigs intruding into the field and doing their business.”
He also suggests avoiding any lettuce or fruit in southern climates due to an uptick in rat lungworm disease, which involves a parasite traveling from your bloodstream into your brain. Fruit covered in a rind like an orange and banana may be safer than, say, apples or grapes. “But if you’re spending three or four days then heading back home you can live without a banana,” Marler said.
Eat cooked foods
It sounds like a no-brainer, but Nelken said anything like runny eggs, raw oysters, sushi and ceviche can be a major source of foodborne illness, a breeding ground for pathogens like Norovirus and salmonella. Marler added that while cooking meat thoroughly will remove some of the bacteria, if it’s contaminated to begin with, no amount of heat will save you.