Stomach Sense

Eat, drink and be merry - safely

By Charmian Christie

Most travelers to Mexico have heard of Montezuma's Revenge and heed the cliché advice, "Don't drink the water." But Mexico isn't the only country where you can pick up a nasty stomach bug, and drinking water isn't the only source. Tainted water can make its way into ice cubes, salads and other edible items you don't suspect. What's more, up to 50 percent of travelers will have some form of digestive upset while traveling to destinations without standard Western hygiene. Even if food looks, smells and tastes normal, it could still be contaminated. And just because the locals are chowing down with no ill-effect doesn't mean you have the iron stomach required to keep the meal down.

Healthy Handling Habits

  • Wash your hands before eating or handling food.
  • Hit the bottle - bottled water, soft drinks, wine, beer and pre-packaged juices are usually safe. Make sure the seal hasn't been tampered with.
  • Eat fruit and vegetables you can peel yourself.
  • Eat only freshly prepared food, provided it's cooked thoroughly and served to you hot off the stove.

Habits to Avoid

  • Even if the drinking water has passed inspection, don't rely on kitchen staff to practice safe food preparation. Play it safe and avoid:
    • Ice cubes
    • Salads
    • Leftovers
    • Undercooked or uncooked foods - dairy and eggs are especially dangerous
    • Brushing your teeth in tap or unsterilized water. Use bottled water or let your teeth get fuzzy for one night.
    • Sampling from street vendors. There's no guarantee these dishes have been refrigerated or cooked properly. They can also be left exposed to flies all day. And we all know what flies eat.
    • Raw food. Sushi may be chic, but raw fish is a recipe for intestinal disaster.

When Disaster Strikes

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we eat something that disagrees with our system. If you get diarrhea, don't panic. Although you think it will never end, most cases run their course (quite literally) in 24 to 48 hours. While you might feel like you're going to die, dehydration is your biggest threat, not the bug that's attacking you. To speed up your recovery:

  • Drink lots of bottled or boiled water.
  • Eat only salty crackers - give your bowels a break and don't introduce any food until the diarrhea slows or stops.
  • Take some over the counter medication such as Imodium (this should always be part of any first aid kit)

If you find blood in your stool or if a high fever accompanies the diarrhea, get medical treatment immediately. See a doctor right away if the symptoms don't stop or are accompanied by severe abdominal pain.

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