A Miserable but Avoidable Event: Food Poisoning when Traveling Abroad4 min read
Bounding down the rocky roads of Kitete, Tanzania in an undersized and overdusted jeep, I sat slumped in the passenger seat feeling as if I my stomach was expanding and my head was shrinking. With every rock we drove over, I heaved and thought I might vomit (for the fourth time that day). I was incredibly nauseous, but was unsure of the cause. I had spent nearly five weeks in rural Tanzania without a bump, a bruise, or even a headache, yet that day a simple stroll down the hallway felt like a marathon through a desert.
After a bumpy twenty minute drive (that felt like twenty hours) the priest running my eight- week service program in Northern Tanzania arrived with me at the well-regarded Fame Health Clinic, run by an American doctor who returned to Tanzania after attempting to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in 2002. Due to some extreme muscle weakness and a bad case of double vision, I slowly made my way up the few steps to the reception area. I spotted the African nurse who seemed to be checking people in, but before I had enough time to mumble out “mimi gonjwa sana”, the broken Swahili translation for “I am very ill”, the sickness became too much and I passed out.
I came to a couple minutes later lying down on a table with an IV in my arm and the doctor standing above me with a clipboard asking, “Jeez son, what did you eat?” His diagnosis of food poisoning forced me to relive my diet from the past couple days, and after reviewing a couple of meals, I stumbled upon the obvious culprit. Three days prior, my friend Erik and I traveled to the nearby monthly “mnada” or market day. After an hour of shopping, Erik and I met some villagers grilling meat on the side of the market who offered us some on a stick for only a few thousand shillings (roughly two U.S. dollars). We managed to wash the questionable snack down with a beer, but we both walked away quite wary of what we had just put into our bodies. As I recalled the details of the story to the doctor, I quickly realized how I would have been lucky to not get food poisoning after what I had done. I had to learn the hard way, but there are some practical and easy tips to follow if you want to avoid or treat food poisoning on your upcoming trip:
- Plan ahead: Exercising, eating lots of fruit and vegetables and having plenty of sleep in the weeks before traveling will help to boost the immune system, helping to quickly rid your sytstem of any germs you pick up abroad.
- Do your research: It depends on where you are going, but foreign travelers are commonly advised to avoid the local water. While locals can drink it without consequence, its unfamiliar pathogens may cause an adverse reaction in outsiders.
- Wash your hands, utensils and food surfaces often: Wash your hands well with warm, soapy water before and after handling or preparing food. Use hot water to wash cutting boards or any other surface you use to cook.
- Pack a few tablets of bismuth subsalicylate: Bismuth subsalicylate (BSS), is the active ingredient found in Pepto-Bismol. According to the CDC, one study in Mexico found that taking 2 ounces of liquid or 2 chewable tablets 4 times per day reduced the incidence of Traveler’s Diarrhea from 40% to 14%.
- Eat this, not that: Tasting the local dish can be a great treat, but try to eat fresh or thoroughly cooked food that is still very hot. Avoid uncooked food, especially fish and shellfish, or food that has been kept warm. By doing this you’re already lowering your risk of food poisoning from fish.
- Treat with rest and liquids: Food poisoning causes the body to dehydrate and lose essential salts and minerals, so take your time to refill on fluids and rest up. Most food-borne illnesses will improve on their own within 48 hours.
- Ease back into eating: Gradually begin to eat bland, easy-to-digest foods, such as soda crackers, toast, gelatin, bananas and rice. Stop eating if your nausea returns.
Author: Will Crowley
Will Crowley is a summer intern for HTH Worldwide’s product development team. In August, Will is returning to the University of Notre Dame as a senior to complete his studies with a major in management consulting and a minor in peace studies.