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Avoiding Foodborne Illnesses

One of the best parts of travel is experiencing new foods, flavors, traditions, and culinary delights. And on the other end, one of the worst parts of travel is food poisoning and travelers' diarrhea. Travelers' diarrhea is the most common travel-related illness, but there are steps you can take to ensure you spend more time in the Louvre than in the loo. While you can't completely remove the risk of consuming contaminated food or drink, you can greatly reduce your risk by making safe food and drink choices.

At-Risk Destinations

Food and water-borne illnesses can occur anywhere (who hasn't regretted that grocery store salad bar or family potluck?), but developing countries pose the highest risk. This includes most countries in Asia (excluding Japan), as well as Africa, the Middle East, Central and South America, and Mexico. Sources of clean water may be limited, and sanitization techniques may not be adequate to ensure that food is prepared safely. Before any trip, review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) travel guidelines for your destination country to understand what you should and shouldn't consume.

Use the following standards as guidelines regardless of where you travel. And remember—be smart, be safe, and bon appétite!

Food

High heat kills dangerous germs, so food that is cooked thoroughly and served hot is usually safe. Food that has been cooked and allowed to cool to warm or room temperatures, like at a buffet, could become contaminated. Make sure animal products like meat, fish, and eggs, are cooked all the way through. Though sanitation techniques may be more adequate and enforced in developed countries, consuming raw or undercooked foods in any destination can send you on a one-way ticket to the nearest restroom.

Packaged, Dry, or Preserved Food

Most germs that will get you sick require moisture and oxygen to live, so dry food, such as nuts, bread, and potato chips, are generally safe. Additionally, food stored in factory-sealed containers is considered safe is the seal is still

Raw Food and Fresh Fruits or Vegetables

If possible, you should avoid consuming most raw foods, Exceptions include raw fruits or vegetables, which may be safe, if you peel them yourself or wash them with bottled or disinfected water. Not all tap water is safe, and washing food in contaminated water can pose additional risks. If you didn't see the produce washed, or it's a fruit without a peelable skin, you should avoid it. Be especially aware of fruit and vegetable platters, fresh-squeezed juice, salads, fresh salsas, and condiments that have been exposed to the air or that you did not see prepared. These foods may play host to bacteria and other germs that can make you sick.

Street Food

Street food is a staple in many countries and can be a culinary delight (It. Smells. So. Good.). Approach it with an open mind, an empty belly, and a discerning palate. Street vendors in many developing countries may not be held to the same food safety standards as restaurants, which may also have lower standards than what your digestive system is accustomed to. If you choose to eat street food, apply the same rules outlined above, like avoiding raw or undercooked food.

Lunch with a view in Armenia; photo by Vladislav Sevostianov '19

Drinks

Canned and bottled beverages

Sealed drinks, including water, juice, and soda, are usually safe. Carbonated beverages are safest because the presence of bubbles indicate that the bottle or can has been properly sealed.

Milk

Pasteurized milk and dairy products served cold from factory-sealed bottles or cartons are considered safe. Avoid unpasteurized milk and dairy products.

Tap Water

In most developing countries, you should avoid drinking tap water (and fountain drinks mixed with tap water) unless you know that tap water has been boiled, filtered, or chemically treated with chlorine or iodine to disinfect it. In some locations, you may want to use bottled water to brush your teeth.

Ice

Ice is usually made from tap water and should be avoided in all beverages. Even in mixed drinks, the alcohol content may not be high enough to kill the bacteria in the ice; order those drinks neat or straight up rather than on the rocks.

If You Get Food Poisoning or Travelers' Diarrhea

Drink fluids to rehydrate and stay hydrated. Consider taking an over-the-counter medication like Imodium to decrease the frequency and urgency of diarrhea.

To treat prolonged bouts, or to obtain an antibiotic, you can call International SOS at +1 (617) 998-0000 or connect through the Assistance App. Case managers can take your call 24/7, connect you with a medical professional, and direct you to the nearest pharmacy, clinic, or hospital for appropriate treatment.

Additional Resources