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How to Avoid Food Poisoning While Traveling

Decrease your chances of getting sick on the road by following these easy steps.

U.S. News & World Report

How to Avoid Food Poisoning While Traveling

Woman with stomach pain sitting on the toilet.

Take a daily dose of bismuth subsalicylate, the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol, to decrease your chance of contracting traveler's diarrhea. (Getty Images)

For many travelers, eating offers the best introduction to a new destination. Despite cultural and linguistic differences, our taste buds speak a universal language that knows no bounds. But eating your way through a new city isn't without its hazards. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year more than 10 million overseas travelers cope with diarrhea and other gastrointestinal illnesses as a result of consuming contaminated food or drinking water. Though the old adage "boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it," was once considered a food safety rule of thumb for travelers, studies conducted by the CDC reveal that consumers who vigilantly followed this practice still fell ill, likely as a result of poor hygiene in local restaurants.

While it's impossible to eradicate your risk of contracting food poisoning while traveling since you're unable to regulate your food or beverage preparation, there are several steps you can take to decrease your chances of getting sick when en route. With the help of the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and NSF International, an independent organization that develops public health standards, U.S. News shares four tips for preventing food poisoning while on the road, plus advice for dealing with illness when it strikes.

Know the Risks of Your Destination

Though you're likely sanitizing your hands and steering clear of questionable eateries no matter where you are in the world, you're probably not boiling your tap water and taking Pepto-Bismol before every meal. Certain destinations require extra precautions, and it's important to understand just how guarded you need to be when traveling. Luckily, the CDC developed a system to help you identify which parts of the world pose the biggest health risks (and thus, where you need to be the most vigilant). Low-risk countries include the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Northern and Western Europe. Eastern Europe, South Africa and some of the Caribbean islands are considered intermediate-risk countries. Meanwhile, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico and Central and South America are classified as high-risk areas.

Only Drink Safe Beverages

This is an age-old tip, but it bears repeating since even a small dose of tainted water can cause illness: Because water can be contaminated with bacteria, parasites and viruses that cause hepatitis, cholera and typhoid fever, it's best to follow recommendations from the FDA and the CDC when evaluating whether a drink is safe. If you can, only drink factory-sealed bottled water while traveling (some vendors may try to sell you bottles that have been filled with tap water and "sealed" with glue, says Mindy Costello, NSF International consumer information specialist). When examining the plastic bottle, check to see if the plastic ring that seals the cap is intact. If you don't have access to bottled water, boiling your water for three minutes should kill pathogens, according to the FDA. If you don't have the means to boil your water, consider investing in a lightweight portable water purifier, such as the ones produced by SteriPEN or Sawyer Products. The CDC also recommends avoiding ice and fountain sodas and juices, since these beverages are typically made with tap water. Freshly squeezed juice, though tempting, is also considered unsafe by the CDC since it's often prepared by unknown hands and therefore may contain bacteria.

So what's considered a "safe beverage"? Steaming hot drinks (warm or room temperature won't cut it), alcohol, pasteurized milk, carbonated and bottled or canned drinks are categorized as safe (just make sure you wipe off the lid of the can before taking a sip).

Take a Daily Antacid

Aside from frequently washing your hands and using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, you should also take a daily dose of bismuth subsalicylate, the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol. Studies have shown that bismuth subsalicylate can decrease your chances of contracting traveler's diarrhea by about 50 percent. The CDC recommends ingesting either 2 ounces of liquid or two chewable tablets four times a day for up to three weeks during your trip to effectively reduce your risk.

Stick to Hot Meals

Food that's thoroughly cooked is your safest bet when traveling to an intermediate- or high-risk region. Germs are killed by high heat, so if you're served a steaming dish, dig in. You'll have to be a little more cautious when at a buffet, however. According to the CDC, food that's been sitting and not served fresh has the potential to become contaminated again if it's left at room temperature.

So, what about street food? In many destinations, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, the meals or small bites prepared by vendors in street markets or stalls offer a primer to a city's delicacies and its culture. The FDA and the CDC recommend avoiding foods prepared by street vendors, but if you've got your heart set on exploring food markets, heed Costello's recommendation and follow the crowds. Locals aren't immune to food poisoning, meaning if they've gotten sick at a particular stall, they won't return. As you survey the food market scene, look for the busy, crowded stalls. These vendors likely have good track records. Plus, the more business a stall gets, the higher turnover there is, meaning the food is fresher.

Replenish Your Fluids

If you fall ill despite your best efforts, try to replenish the fluids and electrolytes you lost while sick. Aside from drinking plenty of water, you can also ask the local pharmacist for a loperamide-based drug, such as Imodium, to decrease the frequency of diarrhea. This won't treat the cause of your sickness, but it will help you cope. According to the CDC, if you're experiencing severe fluid loss, you can also take an oral rehydration solution, which is prepared from packaged oral rehydration salts (like those provided by the World Health Organization) and can be found at stores and pharmacies in most developing countries. DripDrop and Pedialyte are two examples of brands that produce oral rehydration solutions, though availability may vary by destination. And lastly, don't panic that this bout of sickness will ruin your entire trip. Most food poisoning symptoms subside after two to four days.

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