When you travel, eating is pure joy — most of the time.
In fact, some people base their entire vacations around dining on exotic dishes. We all enjoy a memorable meal, and there are regions around the world that boast cuisines unlike any other. Italy, India, Brazil, Scandinavia, Greece, Japan — you name a country, and they’ll likely have their own distinct flavor, culture, and culinary history.
However, medical issues can crop up when you're traveling abroad, too. There are many reasons Americans get sick when they travel. No one wants to go on vacation and wind up falling ill, but it happens, and many of these instances can be traced back to your last meal.
Why we get sick when we travel abroad
When you leave your home country and cross boundary lines, you're entering a region with a completely new set of pathogens and bacteria your body might not be prepared for. Your immune system has grown accustomed to what you consume on a daily basis. When it encounters a microbe it’s unfamiliar with, its first response is to get rid of it, whether or not the food is spoiled or contaminated.
For foodies, this can pose a major predicament.
If you're one of these travelers, don’t fret. There are things you can do to prevent these illnesses from happening, many of which can be performed before you leave on vacation.
Here are few to get you started:
Get vaccinated: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does a great job sending out timely updates about which countries are currently unsafe for travel, and they'll also give you expert advice about which vaccines are appropriate for the region. For the most part, you'll need to receive your vaccines about six to eight weeks before you head out on your trip.
Prepare your body for the trip: Keep your health in tip-top shape and your immune system prepared for a harsher bacterial environment. Eating healthy and exercising regularly are good ideas.
Drink bottled water upon arrival: Bacteria and microbes thrive in tap water. While locals will be just fine drinking the water, your body might have a different reaction. Stock up on bottled water and avoid public water fountains. If you’re in a country where visitors often get sick, don’t even use tap water to brush your teeth.
Only eat fruits and veggies you can peel: In developing countries, agricultural practices are vastly different. Many nations use fertilizers or other substances that might be banned in the U.S., so it’s important you stick to fruits and vegetables that have thick skins (like bananas and watermelons) and avoid other fruits and veggies where harmful substances can creep in, like berries.
Buy travel insurance: It’s not guaranteed that your healthcare coverage will apply to your visit abroad. With a comprehensive travel insurance plan, you can protect your health and your travel investment.
Inspect the vendor: When you first enter a foreign restaurant, make sure that the place serving you appears clean. Take a look at the preparation surfaces, aprons, and hands of the people preparing the food. Also keep an eye out for an efficient washing station on the premises. These are all signs that you're eating in a safe environment. It’s not a terrible idea for you to heed the age-old instruction of washing your hands before you eat either.
Another note: If the lines are long and moving fast at a certain vendor, that generally means that the food hasn’t been sitting out for prolonged periods of time, making it safer for consumption.
Foods to avoid: Some types of dishes are a hotbed for rampant bacteria. These include cold meat platters, cheese, and buffet foods. Opt for smaller fish when ordering out and avoid larger fish or shellfish, as these are more attractive places for microbes to thrive. Cocktail fans will be happy to know most wine, beer, and liquor drinks are considered safe to drink, as are coffee and tea (though you might want to avoid including dairy).
What to do if you get sick
If you find yourself with travelers’ diarrhea or other gastrointestinal problems while traveling abroad, trust us, you won’t be the first or last to suffer through those symptoms. Keep in mind that pharmacies across the world are very different from those in the U.S. In fact, you can walk into most stores and get the medication you need without a prescription. You just need to describe your symptoms.
Of course, you can always plan ahead and pack medications in case you want to stick with brand names you're familiar with. Before you take any medicine, be sure to check the packaging for damage and tears and never purchase medication from night markets or street vendors.
If you need to see a doctor, it’s common practice in most countries to go directly to the clinic or hospital rather than making an appointment like you would in the U.S. You can opt for local hospitals, which will offer quality care but might present language barriers. Many major cities have international hospitals with medical professionals who speak English, though the services might cost more.
When you return home, be sure to set up an appointment with your doctor so you can have bloodwork done and check your general overall health. A fair warning: If you've been traveling abroad for several months, your body might go through a reverse effect when trying to readjust to American foods.
In short: Your best course of action is to be prepared for anything if you want to eat adventurously. There are many things you can do to prevent falling ill.
Want to make sure your trip is protected from illness and more? Get a travel insurance quote now.