Travelling, eating and drinking go together. But, unfortunately, traveller’s diarrhoea and other food-related illnesses can sometimes come along for the ride. The good news is there are simple things you can do to reduce your chances of getting sick while travelling. And if you do happen to fall ill on holidays, chances are you will be back on the road after a few (quite unpleasant) days.
Common food-related illnesses for travellers
Traveller’s diarrhoea is a common digestive tract disorder that is usually caused by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. The symptoms include loose stools, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and fever. Traveller’s diarrhoea usually clears up on its own in a few days. But sometimes it may require medical intervention.
Other (more serious) food-related illnesses include hepatitis A, typhoid and cholera. These are all vaccine-preventable diseases. For more information on whether you need to be vaccinated before you travel, visit the Smartraveller website.
Personal hygiene and food safety when travelling
The best way to keep safe from common travelling illnesses is to be extra careful with your personal hygiene. Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before you eat. And try not to put your fingers in your mouth.
If you are travelling in a place where clean water is not readily available, think about packing disposable wipes or an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
Safe drinking water when travelling
Water is the best way to stay hydrated when you are travelling. But make sure the water you drink is safe:
- Drink bottled water from a reliable source, but check the seal is intact before you drink. And use bottled water to brush your teeth.
- Boil water from the tap. Make sure you bring your water to a rolling boil (where you can see large bubbles).
- Purify water by using a water purifier.
- Chemically disinfect your water by using iodine-based drinking water tablets.
- Steer clear of ice cubes unless you know for sure that they are made from safe bottled water. Freezing water preserves germs!
Make good choices about what you eat and drink
If you are planning to eat and drink your way around the world, here are a few tips that can help keep you safe from food-related illnesses:
- Food that is cooked at high heat is usually safe to eat. So you can feel quite confident about tucking into a plate of steaming hot food. But be more cautious about food that is cooked and then kept at warm or room temperatures, like a buffet.
- The same rule of thumb applies to hot drinks. If you are served a steaming hot cup of tea or coffee, it should be fine to drink. But you should be more cautious about coffee or tea or any other drink that is served warm or at room temperature.
- Dry, packaged and factory sealed food (such as bread, potato chips and canned tuna) are usually safe to eat. Just make sure you check that the packaging is not damaged before you open it.
- Raw food can be a risky choice for travellers. You should generally avoid cut up fresh fruit and vegetables unless you know that they were washed in safe water and cut up by someone wearing gloves or with good hand hygiene. Salads, raw meat and uncooked seafood are also more likely to contain germs that may end up making you sick.
- Street food is a great way to experience local culture, and good for your wallet as well. But these stalls probably won’t have the same hygiene standards as restaurants. The best approach here is to choose steaming hot food straight off the grill.
- If you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system, you are best to avoid unpasteurised dairy products (such as milk, yoghurt and cheese).
Treatment for food-related illness when travelling
If you do happen to get sick with traveller’s diarrhoea (or another food-related illness) while you are away, don’t panic. You should be back on the tourist trail in a couple of days. In the meantime:
- Make yourself as comfortable as possible in your hotel or hostel and plan to stay put for a few days. Your body needs rest, fluids and a bathroom.
- Take a loperamide-based drug (such as Imodium). If you do not have any in your bag, head to a local pharmacy. Or, better still, send your travelling companion so you can stay in bed.
- Keep drinking water. Small sips often will help your body keep the water down.
- Listen to your body. When you start feeling ready to eat again, stick to simple food like toast, crackers, bananas and rice.
Sometimes traveller’s diarrhoea will need medical attention. Contact a doctor or go to a hospital as soon as you can if you are experiencing:
- frequent vomiting for more than two days
- severe diarrhoea for more than three days
- blood in your vomit or diarrhoea
- high fever (39°C or over)
- extreme abdominal pain
- signs of dehydration (such as dizziness or a dry mouth).
- Eating and drinking can be some of the best things about travelling.
- Traveller’s diarrhoea and other food-borne illnesses can make you sick while you are overseas.
- To keep yourself well while you are away, practise good personal hygiene and make informed choices about food and drink.
- If you do get sick, don’t panic. Most cases of traveller’s diarrhoea will clear up in a few days. But there are instances where you may need medical help.
- Don’t forget to check which vaccinations you need before you leave.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Travel Clinics Australia
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.