It’s what travel nightmares are made of: You’ve spent months planning a trip, and within days of arriving at your destination, you’re hit with food poisoning. Now you’re stuck wallowing in your hotel bathroom, too ill to do anything more than pretend to enjoy the view outside your window.
This experience is unfortunately not all that uncommon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that traveler’s diarrhea — or food poisoning — affects 30–70% of travelers who have consumed food or water contaminated by infectious bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Julie Devinsky M.S., R.D., a nutritionist at Mount Sinai Hospital explained the phenomenon to Travel + Leisure: “Here in the states, the USDA sets strict standards of Food Safety Guidelines.” However, other countries do not have these guidelines, with most of Asia (except Japan), the Middle East, Mexico, and Central and South America posing the highest risk to travelers. And you may also get food poisoning when you come into contact with foreign bacteria that is not necessarily harmful to the locals.
Whether you contract it from undercooked meat, raw fish, or sunny side up eggs, at the end of the day the result is the same: You’re sick. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of food poisoning can range from nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps to fever and bloody diarrhea. The illness can last from several hours to several days.
In case you are one of the unlucky travelers to come down with a food-borne illness, your vacation is not irredeemably ruined. Below, we’ve rounded up six tips to help you get healthy as quickly as possible so you can get back to enjoying your trip.
1. Drink plenty of water
You’re losing all the fluids in your body to diarrhea and vomiting, and it’s essential that you replace them, the Mayo Clinic explains. Stick to liquids while you are feeling nauseous: clear soda, clear broth, and bottled water. If you only have access to tap water, kill the bacteria by boiling it first. You can also suck on ice chips if your stomach cannot handle liquids, but you may want to avoid ice if you think you got food poisoning from contaminated water.
2. Don’t forget about the electrolyte-fortified liquids.
Vomiting can cause an electrolyte imbalance, so you also need to drink fluids that restore the balance, as water alone will not help you recover. Coconut water and Gatorade are both rich in electrolytes and popular choices for the ill traveler; alternatively, if neither are available, Devinsky recommends making an oral re-hydration solution. To make this, boil one liter of water and add six teaspoons of sugar and a half teaspoon of salt to the pot. Take care to drink it slowly.
3. Slowly introduce solid foods back into your diet
Devinksy says your GI tract cannot properly digest food when you first come down with food poisoning — but once you are no longer suffering from active GI distress, you can reintroduce into your diet food that’s bland, low in fat, and low-fiber (think rice, toast, bananas, and baked potatoes). Start by eating small amounts frequently, and if you start feeling sick to your stomach, revert back to liquids. Foods that contain salt, like soup and crackers, also serve to restore much-needed electrolytes.
4. Avoid food that can potentially upset your stomach
Dairy products, greasy or fried foods, high-fiber foods (e.g. bran, nuts, seeds, raw veggies), spicy foods, and coffee can all upset your digestive tract, so avoid these foods until you start feeling better. Your stomach will thank you.
5. Stock up on medicine
There isn’t one best medication you should be taking, Devinksy says. Consult with a physician if you can, but Pepto-Bismol and other over-the-counter medications will help soothe symptoms. If you’re hit especially hard by diarrhea, you (or a friend or family member traveling with you) should go out and get some Imodium. However, Devinksy warns: “Drugs that help control diarrhea can treat the symptom (partially) but are working against the body’s natural defense of expelling the toxin or infectious agent.”
6. Know when to seek medical attention
If you are frequently vomiting, see blood in your vomit or stool, experience diarrhea for more than two days, suffer from severe cramping, or are experiencing any of the symptoms of dehydration – dizziness, dry mouth, and lightheadedness – you need to go to the doctor, the Mayo Clinic advises. In the worst case scenario, you might need to be hospitalized to treat the dehydration.
If you’re heading abroad, find out if your health insurance is accepted by the nearest hospital. If not, consider purchasing medical travel insurance in case the food poisoning is serious enough to warrant a trip to the doctor.
7. Avoid getting sick again
You can’t always avoid food poisoning, but you can take certain precautions ahead of your trip to reduce the risk, according to the CDC. Since it is possible to get ill from tap water, make room for bottled water and hand sanitizer in your suitcase, and avoid undercooked meats and food that has been sitting out at room temperature for a while. Devinksy adds that travelers should take care with raw fruits and vegetables, which can be contaminated by the local water system during food preparation, and to stick to food that is served hot. Before you leave on your trip, you may also want to ask your doctor to prescribe broad spectrum antibiotics.