How To Prevent, Cure, and Cope with a Foodborne Illness While Traveling

updated May 30, 2019
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We’re about to get real here, folks. Traveling around the world and experiencing new foods and flavors is wonderful, yes. However, it is also frequently an assault on your digestive flora with less-than-appealing outcomes. Traveler wellness woes are almost always food-related, so what can be done to help prevent it? One reporter from the NYT shares what he learned after an unfortunate run-in with a mango in India.

There are a number of myths surrounding traveler’s diarrhea: The good bacteria in your gut is enough to overcome any bad bacteria. (Wrong.) Imodium will only lengthen your illness. (Wrong again.) In fact, “there is no food on the planet that will protect against an onslaught of toxic bacteria,” says Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, an expert on traveler’s health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in this New York Times article. Instead, an early dose of antibiotics is strongly recommended. Trying to “wait it out” just means you give the bacteria more time to thrive, making you that much sicker. Antibiotics are “often miraculous cures, because 80 percent to 90 percent of traveler’s diarrhea cases are caused by bacteria,” says Dr. Kozarsky. As with all things, an aggressive treatment of antibiotics has its own problems, but it is still the most effective way to cure a bout of traveler’s diarrhea.

Additionally, the advice to avoid Imodium, otherwise known as loperamide, is also misinformed. Imodium doesn’t lengthen the illness; it simply lessons the symptoms, a “significant benefit when the short trip to the bathroom seems like a marathon.”

So how can one ward off getting sick while abroad? Dr. Michael Fischbach, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, recommends eating yogurt and other fermented foods, particularly after you’ve taken antibiotics, although he admits “there is little evidence proving the effectiveness of this strategy.” Other recommendations include daily doses of Pepto-Bismol, but only if it’s a brief trip, as antacid therapies are not healthy for long periods of time.

Finally, try limiting meals to foods that resist bacteria or those that have been well cooked. As Dr. Kozarsky says, “If you eat things that are still steaming, the bacteria will be killed.”

Read More: When the Mango Bites | New York Times Well Blog

(Image: Flickr user Alex Kehr, licensed under Creative Commons)