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One of the most exciting perks of traveling abroad is sampling exotic foods. But that can also put you at risk for food poisoning, which can ruin your vacation.
So how can you partake of the local cuisine and avoid becoming ill? By making smart choices and paying attention to subtle clues.
In your hometown, you know which restaurants are going to be packed full of customers every Friday and Saturday night. And a big crowd is generally the sign of a good restaurant. Apply that knowledge when you’re traveling abroad – if the locals don’t want to eat there, you shouldn’t either.
Also, as you sit down at your table, observe how clean it is. If you see grimy condiment bottles or dirty silverware, assume that the kitchen is probably dirty, too. Improper sanitation is one of the primary ways food poisoning spreads, so don’t take chances by eating at a dirty restaurant.
Food safety basics
All food – even that which you prepare in your own kitchen – carries a risk of contamination. But over time, your stomach grows accustomed to things like the sediment in your water supply, or the fertilizers used on your produce. When you travel abroad, your body hasn’t had time to get used to how food is prepared, and that can cause stomach problems.
Tap water is one of the riskiest items you can consume when traveling abroad. In some countries, the water may be perfectly fine to drink in one area but contaminated in another area. Your best bet is to drink bottled or canned water, beer and soft drinks. Hot drinks should be safe to drink, too, as high heat kills many waterborne contaminants. Produce washed in contaminated water can also cause illness. But fruits you can peel yourself – bananas and oranges, for example – are generally safe.
Many of the most common contaminants that cause food poisoning can be killed-off when food is properly cooked. So even if you prefer rare steak, when traveling, err on the side of eating something that’s overcooked.
Other foods to avoid include:
- Unpasteurized dairy products
- Raw fish and shellfish
- Buffet foods
- Opened condiments (if you need mustard or ketchup, try to find packets instead)
What to do if you fall ill
The signs of food poisoning are obvious and can occur within just a few hours of eating the offending food, or even weeks later. As soon as you notice symptoms, stop eating and drinking until your stomach settles. Gradually begin eating and drinking again (mild foods and bottled water), and get a lot of rest.
Children, elderly people and people with compromised immune systems can become seriously ill as a result of food poisoning and require hospitalization. To protect yourself and members of your family, get an international medical insurance policy – HCC Medical has policies that cover many different types of travel, so you’ll never be without medical care in an emergency. (Travelers may be surprised to learn their regular medical insurance may not cover them when abroad).
Don’t let a fear of food poisoning dissuade you from trying local specialties when you’re in another country. Instead, choose the busiest, cleanest restaurants and avoid foods commonly associated with food poisoning risk. You can always order that rare steak when you get back home.