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Food safety while travelling
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.
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-fecal route due to poor hygiene.
People who live in a certain region have grown accustomed to the local foods. However, as a traveler 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 travelers include:
- Traveler's diarrhea - a very common complaint. Diarrhea can be caused by several different types of food-borne microorganisms. For more details see our report on this topic;
- Giardiasis - an illness caused by the intestinal parasite Giardia lamblia;
- Typhoid fever;
- Poisoning by toxins from molds, 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.
Travel to developing or tropical regions
If you live in an industrialized (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.
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.
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:
- Diarrhea - 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.
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.
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 unpasteurized 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 traveler's medical kit that can include simple medications and written advice for diarrhea.
- 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 sanitizer 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 diarrheal 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.
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.
- Akhtar S. Sarker M.R. & Hossain A. (2012). Microbiological food safety: a dilemma of developing societies. Critical Reviews in Microbiology 40: 348359.
- Food and Water Safety | Travelers Health | CDC. Accessed 28 August 2014 from link here
- Food poisoning (food-borne illness). Accessed 28 August 2014 from link here
- Food Safety Home | CDC. Accessed 28 August 2014 from link here
- FoodSafety.gov. FoodSafety.gov. Accessed 28 August 2014 from link here
- Health c=AU; st=Victoria; o=State G. of V. ou1=Department of. Home: Food Safety - Department of Health Victoria Australia. guidelines. Accessed 28 August 2014 from link here
- Linton Richard H. (1999). Food safety Issues. Accessed 28 August 2014 from link here
- Travelling overseas food safety «?Food Safety. Accessed 28 August 2014 from link here
- WHO | Food Safety and Zoonoses. WHO. Accessed 28 August 2014 from link here
FAQ Frequently asked questions
What is food-borne illness?
Food-borne illnesses are illnesses that can be contracted by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water.
What are the symptoms of food-borne illness?
The signs and symptoms of food-borne diseases can vary according to the disease in question. They typically (though not always) involve the digestive system and can include: diarrhea (usually explosive, urgent and watery) four to five (or more) …
What causes food-borne illnesses?
Microorganisms of all types can be found on and in food. Some of them can cause illness.
Who gets food-borne illnesses?
Anyone can get ill by eating contaminated food. The risk increases for children and older people, people with weak immune systems, and for travelers who may be particularly susceptible to foreign illnesses.
Will food-borne illness clear on its own?
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 …
How is food-borne illness spread?
Most types of food-borne illnesses spread via the oral-fecal route, meaning that infected human waste contaminates food in poor hygiene conditions.
Can food-borne illness be prevented?
You can reduce your chances of contracting food-borne illness by practicing good hygiene measures, such as: taking care to wash your hands when handling food, taking care to eat and use water only from safe sources; taking care when washing or bathing, …
Are there different types of food-borne illness?
A wide variety of pathogens (disease-producing organisms) can be caught from food and drink. The most common food-borne illnesses experienced by travelers include: Traveler's diarrhea (a very common complaint), giardasis, typhoid fever, …
What increases the chances of developing a food-borne illness while travelling?
Being in a high-risk group (such as children and older people), eating and using water from unsafe sources and individual health conditions all affect your chances of falling ill from food-borne illness.