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Avoiding Food Poisoning on Vacation

Updated on June 21, 2008

Staying healthy on Vacation

Announcing that you are heading off to an exotic location for a few weeks will undoubtedly make you the recipient of much unsolicited advice on how to avoid Delhi Belly or Montezuma's Revenge. Don't eat anything uncooked, certainly not the salad! Don't drink the water!

Experienced Travelers Stay Healthy

Don't take ice in your drinks!Don't eat from the food stalls!Well I have travelled to a lot of countries : 55 at last count. I have in general travelled cheap, eaten at local restaurants and street stalls. I love to eat and try new stuff, I like ice in my drinks and drink a lot of water. How often have I got sick? Five times as far as I can remember. I mean in bed, on the toilet, can't think about leaving the room for between 24 hours and a couple of days, sick. One of those times was in Australia, another in Ireland - not exactly high risk countries. I spent a total of 4 months travelling in India, not sick at all.

Roadside Stall, Cambodia
Roadside Stall, Cambodia

So what makes you sick? Often as not it's actually the cutlery or plates which have been washed in contaminated water. Or the oil or ghee is rancid. Eating at a street stall where they are grilling in front of you is as safe as it gets. Anywhere you can see the food being prepared is probably safer than somewhere with a kitchen hidden out the back.

Tips to Avoid Food Poisoning

  • Eat where everyone else eats: and eat what they are eating. Don't order tofu in a fish restaurant as a friend of mine did - she was really ill -the tofu had probably been at the restaurant for longer than she'd been in Thailand!
  • Don't eat from the American or English menu, the locals don't know how to cook it and the ingredients will have been lying around too long - order what the locals are eating by pointing at nearby tables - it there is no one at the nearby tables - find another restaurant!

  • It's safer to accept food on paper plates or banana skins than something that needs to be washed. Take your own plastic fork or throwaway chopsticks. Last resort - use your hands - there will almost always be a basin to wash your hands in at a cheap restaurant - and so long as you dry them well they should be reasonably sanitary.

  • Rancid oil or ghee can make you violently sick and the taste is not obvious. I find it hard to pick but again going for the busy restaurant will probably avoid the problem. Or avoid ordering deep fried food.

Get used to the local food

How did I get violently ill after a birthday lunch at a very exclusive Country House restaurant in Ireland? I don't think it was the food, no one else got sick, I think it was my body. Lunch was a set 4 or 5 courses: it was traditional Irish cuisine, full of heavy cream sauces and excellent cheese and beautiful cream deserts. I usually have a filled roll for lunch. I was still a bit jet lagged having flown around the world a few days earlier. I think my stomach objected to being over fed at what, my body still half thought of as the middle of the night. Listen to your body, if it doesn't want to eat what's in front of you don't.

If all you ever eat is 3 vegetables, meat and potatoes, never eat chilli, or stir-fry or noodles or rice. You then fly to Asia for a 2 week vacation and start eating rice, noodles, chicken, spices 2 or 3 times a day - do you think you will get sick - probably - is it the food - no - I think it's you changing your eating habits over-night. Try doing it at home: start eating out at an Indian or Thai restaurant twice a day for a week - does your body react? Do you have food poisoning? Probably not, but you probably feel bad. Do a bit of trip preparation by varying your diet and eating the cuisine you are going to encounter overseas: a nice thing to do to get into the spirit of travel anyway!

Picnic, Hailong Bay, Vietnam
Picnic, Hailong Bay, Vietnam

Drink the Ice and Water!

The ice in developing countries and the water are probably safer than the food! They are certainly safer than getting dehydrated!

The ice is not made at the restaurant you are at - they order it in from the ice plant along with the bottled water. Everyone in the 3rd world who can afford to, drinks bottled water, and that's what the make the ice from. You will never be offered anything but purified water in a restaurant, no matter how cheap, even if its just in an open jug. However if you demand sealed bottled water you are probably making them quite a lot of money so go for it!

The Author

Lis Sowerbutts has been traveling since age 7, and has to date visited over 55 countries. She firmly believes in travel for the over-30's and that you are never too late to start traveling


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    • profile image

      Oracle Watchman 4 years ago

      Sorry, your advice that we should drink the water and use the ice at restaurants while traveling abroad is absolutely wrong. Some of the ice companies use the local tap water to make ice. They do not pour bottles of potable water into their ice makers. There filtration system, if any at all, is merely a string filter to remove the large sediment, and does zero to remove viruses and bacteria. As well in the larger restaurants, they also have the local water supply hooked up to their ice makers. Tap water in most third world nations is the source of most illnesses. The same goes for salads and other uncooked vegetables which are rinsed with tap water. We are currently living in the Sierra Madres Mountains of Mexico. The locals do not use the tap water at home and will not drink it in restaurants. They do not use the ice for the reasons I mentioned above. So if the locals here and in the many other nations we have traveled to don't use the water or ice, who are you to say it is safe to use? Your advice in this article is based more on unfounded opinion and luck than fact.

    • gryphin423 profile image

      gryphin423 6 years ago from Florida

      Great advice, thank you so much. The only place I ever got sick was from right here in the US at a fancy restaurant, figures! I've visited foreign countries and have never had a problem. I like the "bring your own cutlery" idea though, you just never know!

    • profile image

      Tony 6 years ago

      Paying VND650k for 2 prawns and a crab was ridiculous, at a roadside seafood stall in Cau Go Street,Hanoi(Near Hoan Kiem Lake).Just let you guys know when travelling to Hanoi.Go to a proper restaurant and you may feel more enjoyable, and no regret.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 9 years ago from New Zealand

      I agree Jason - tourists who refuse to eat at roadside stalls are missing out on some of the best food out!

    • Jason Stanley profile image

      Jason Stanley 9 years ago

      We are from the States and have traveled internationally to Latin America and Asia for years. Our idea a a great meal is on the side of the road watching the grease burger / mystery meat being cooked on an open grill. Ya, occasionally we get a touch of the bug, but really not much - and yup the one time I got really sick? After eating at a very exclusive and expensive French restaurant in Saigon. That happened after most of my meals had been sidewalk vendors for months. For us, it is just a part of the "excitement" of travel.

    • Blogger Mom profile image

      Blogger Mom 10 years ago from Northeast, US

      Great info...thanks for sharing! =)

    • Mystic Biscuit profile image

      Mystic Biscuit 10 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

      Great hub, Lissie.

      I too, have done a some traveling. (Not nearly as much as you!) The only place I ever got sick was in Japan. Highly industrialized nation - Go figure! You are right, though, it was probably me! It was a hard-driven tour (I was on tour with a band that summer) and I likely just pushed myself too hard trying to get in all the sites and sounds inbetween gigs! 

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 10 years ago from New Zealand

      Have a great trip Tottie - I haven't made it to China yet though I believe that the food is varied and interersting! Retireyoung of course was breaking rule #1 - eating foreign food!

    • Tottie profile image

      Tottie 10 years ago from Australia , or China, or South Korea.

      Timely advice for someone that is of to China this week. Usually I have managed to stay healthy when tripping around the world, but 4 and a half months in China might be a challenge!!! I appreciate the information you shared.

    • retireyoung profile image

      retireyoung 10 years ago from Bali

      I got really sick last year after eating a pizza in China. I had eaten from the same place a couple of times before and it was ok. Sometimes I think it is just a case of bad luck.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 10 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks for reading LavenderStreak Yes chicken soup is probably the best thing to start eating again, and bananas, I believe yogurt too -but I hate it even when well! Hint : to up your number of countries go to Europe - I managed 3 in 1 day once: France/Monaco/Italy!

    • lavenderstreak profile image

      lavenderstreak 10 years ago from Seattle

      Great info, Lissie. I've not traveled to nearly as many countries as you, but in the 10 years I've been traveling to SE Asia, I've only gotten really sick once and it was my last trip. Maybe I've gotten too cocky (or was too hungry to be careful at the time). I ate at a place I considered safe and disregarded my own good sense.

      The buffet food that should have been hot was cold and I also ate the cold cucumber salad. 2 1/2 days later I was sicker from food poisoning than I had ever been. Thankfully, I was able to recover before my 20 hour trip home and I was in Bangkok where I was well taken care of (I love Bumrumgrad). I'm embarrassed to report that the hotel had to come and change my sheets one night and to make me feel better sent me chicken and rice soup! It was just what I needed (I was pretty hungry after 2 days of not being able to eat much of anything).

      Your post is required reading for anyone who travels abroad, you're truly a veteran traveler (55 countries!!! I hope I live long enough to even come close having started so late in life).


    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 10 years ago from New Zealand

      Exactly that's why the locals who can afford it will always buy water and never drink the stuff from the tap!

    • reversefunnelsyst profile image

      reversefunnelsyst 10 years ago from Nashville

      Hi Lissie

      Great information. I love traveling and I know by being abroad you never know what to eat or how natives make food. Water is the main source of poisonining in many countries

      Great info. Have a great weekend


      Tatyana Gann