What is food safety while travelling?

When you travel, you are exposed to new and exciting experiences. Among them is experiencing the local food in the countries and areas you are travelling in. While new tastes and dishes can be a rewarding experience, eating in foreign locales can carry some risks as well.

Tens of millions of people fall ill due to food-borne illnesses each year. They are most often found in areas where sanitation is poor, but outbreaks of food-borne illnesses happen in all countries. Wherever you are from and wherever you travel, you might find that some of the local food does not agree with you. Being aware of food safety and taking sensible precautions will help you enjoy your culinary experience safely.

Causes

Food-borne-illnesses come from eating spoiled or contaminated food. Nearly all food and drink can have some microorganisms growing in or on it - the more microorganisms there are, the greater the danger of contracting a food-borne illness. Also, commonly food-borne illnesses can be spread via the oral-faceal route due to poor hygiene.

People who live in a certain region have grown accustomed to the local foods. However, as a traveller you come across new, unfamiliar microorganisms. These can be more challenging than usual for your body's intestinal and immune systems.

The most common food-borne illnesses experienced by travellers include:

  • Traveller's diarrhoea - a very common complaint. Diarrhoea can be caused by several different types of food-borne microorganisms. For more details see our report on this topic;
  • Giardasis - an illness caused by the intestinal parasite Giardia lamblia;
  • Typhoid fever;
  • Cholera;
  • Poisoning by toxins from moulds, mushrooms or pesticides, and;
  • Infectious hepatitis, especially hepatitis A.

Another aspect of food safety you may encounter while travelling is allergic reactions to foods. You may not be familiar with the ingredients of unfamiliar foods, or know what effects they have on your body until you accidentally eat something you are allergic to. Finally, exotic foods that are safe and uncontaminated might still have unpleasant effects on your digestion if you eat too much of them.

Digestion

The process of breaking down food so that it is easier for the body to absorb nutrients.

Microorganisms

Any living organism that is too small to be seen clearly with the naked eye, such as bacteria and viruses.

Risk factors

Travel to developing or tropical regions

If you live in an industrialised (first-world) country, it is very common to experience food-related illnesses while travelling through developing nations, where sanitation and food hygiene standards may be poor. Infectious agents may be present in drinking water, food and on communal surfaces such as door handles or handrails.

Age

While food-related illness can happen to anyone, young adults and toddlers tend to get it more than other people.

Weak immune system

You are at greater risk if you have reduced immunity due to an ongoing illness, stroke, heart disease, HIV/AIDS or due to medications such as proton pump inhibitors (used for heartburn, reflux and stomach ulcers) and those that block immune responses such as chemotherapy and steroids (e.g., prednisolone).

Time of year

The time of year you travel can influence your chances of becoming ill. In temperate South-East Asia, the hot months just before the monsoon season provide a much greater risk of food-related illness.

Chemotherapy

A medication-based treatment, usually used in the treatment of cancers. There are numerous, different types of chemotherapy drugs that can be prescribed by a specialist. These can commonly be used alongside other cancer treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy.

Reflux

An abnormal, backwards flow of fluid within the body.

Steroids

A class of chemical substances that have a certain complex of carbon particles. The body produces several types of steroids naturally and artificially-produced steroids are used as medications.

Ulcers

An open sore in the skin or mucous membranes such as those of the stomach lining, intestine or mouth.

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of food-borne diseases can vary according to the disease. They typically, though not always, involve the digestive system.

Typical signs of common food-borne travel illnesses include:

  • Diarrhoea - usually explosive, urgent and watery. Four to five, or more, episodes a day can be expected;
  • Severe stomach cramps with bloating, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting;
  • Muscle aches and tiredness, and;
  • Low-grade fever and sometimes headache.

Food-borne illness can cause, or contribute toward, any case of feeling unwell while travelling, or after returning home from overseas travel. When consulting your doctor, do not forget to mention your travel history.

Digestive system

The series of organs within the body that contribute to the digestion of food. It begins at the mouth and ends at the anus, and includes the stomach, small and large intestines as well as the pancreas, gallbladder and liver.

Types of treatment

Most cases of food-borne illness resolve themselves, although you are likely to have a few miserable days. Bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids and avoiding infecting others are the most common measures you can take.

In more severe cases of illness, consult a doctor. Your doctor will diagnose the problem and advise you on the appropriate treatment.

Prevention

Avoiding risk factors is the main way to reduce your incidence of infection, including the following:

  • Only drink bottled water - also use it to brush your teeth;
  • Do not have ice in drinks;
  • Avoid unpasteurised milk or milk products;
  • Avoid iced coffees or teas and do not add cold milk to tea;
  • Only drink bottled or canned beverages and clean the lid with a cloth beforehand;
  • Avoid all raw or peeled fruits and vegetables (peel them yourself);
  • Avoid green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and lettuce, that may have been washed in tap water;
  • Avoid raw or undercooked meat, especially poultry;
  • Avoid egg products, or sauces that may contain eggs, such as mayonnaise;
  • Avoid food from street vendors;
  • Do not eat food that has been left sitting, or left to cool;
  • Avoid food buffets, and;
  • Discuss vaccination requirements and travel hygiene with your doctor prior to travelling. Some doctors may also provide a useful traveller's medical kit that can include simple medications and written advice for diarrhoea.

Good hygiene

  • Always wash your hands with soap and water and dry them thoroughly after using the toilet and before preparing foods;
  • Wash and thoroughly dry any cooking utensils or glasses after use;
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser when you are unable to wash hands, and;
  • Ensure raw and cooked foods are not handled using the same utensils, or allow them to come into contact with each other.

Prevention for children

  • Do not allow your children to put unwashed hands in their mouths;
  • Do not allow them to play on the floor in risky areas - put down a blanket or rug;
  • Only offer drinks made with previously boiled water (for five minutes), or bottled water;
  • Discuss travel vaccination requirements for your children at least two weeks prior to travelling. Some diarrhoeal illnesses may be preventable by vaccination. Do not allow them to play in water that may be contaminated, and;
  • Wash their hands often, especially before eating and after visiting the bathroom.

Avoid contaminated water

Infectious agents are often present in water that may look clean. In areas with poor sanitation, water is often contaminated by animal and human waste, chemical run-off and numerous microorganisms. If you must enter pools, spas, lagoons, rivers or interactive fountains, it is advisable to do the following:

  • Do not enter if you have open cuts, wounds, fresh piercings or tattoos;
  • Keep your head above water and do not let it enter your eyes, ears or your mouth, and;
  • Keep small children and babies out of the water.

Vaccination

Vaccines are available for some common food-borne illnesses, including typhoid fever, cholera and hepatitis A. Before travelling to areas where these ailments can be found, you may want to discuss your vaccination requirements with a travel doctor at least two weeks prior to travel.

Microorganisms

Any living organism that is too small to be seen clearly with the naked eye, such as bacteria and viruses.

Vaccines

A preparation containing a microorganism (that causes a specific disease) in a dead or weakened state, or parts of it, for the purpose of inducing immunity in a person to that microorganism.