Travel introduces us to new things. New sights, sounds and smells, new food, new people and…new bugs.
Even the most cautious of travellers can run afoul- if you’ll pardon the pun- of a tummy upset. Even something as innocuous as a change of water can send us running- often literally- to the loo. It’s not fun, and it can certainly take the shine off a holiday.
In Asia, as everywhere, there are new and exciting strains of bacteria waiting to become introduced to your own natural gut flora and fauna, but unfortunately your internal workings may not be as thrilled to meet new buddies as you are.
The rule about not eating peeled fruit, lest it be handled by unclean hands or rinsed in unclean water certainly makes sense in certain countries. Having said that, in all honesty, if you are travelling in the East and you don’t build up a mild immunity pretty quickly, in the long run you can expect further trouble.
Ice in drinks is another no no in certain countries, but these days almost all of Asia and South East Asia has widely available clean water.
‘Bali Belly’, and the ‘Touring India Weight Loss Program’ are still a reality for many travellers, but often these delights have come about from travellers not being sensible about where and what to eat.
Hawker stalls and street food are a case in point. The rule of thumb is, if you can see the food being cooked, if the oil or water being used is very hot, if locals are eating there, if it’s not been sitting in the warm sun all day then you should be good to go.
The two worst cases of food poisoning I have had in 27 years in Asia can both be blamed on my own stupidity. Fried rice that had been sitting in a Bay Marie for hours in a deserted museum café in Singapore, and hitting a sushi train in Hong Kong 2 hours after the lunchtime rush and grabbing a rather tired bit of uncooked salmon off the rotating belt. Both times the effect was dramatic and immediate.
Food poisoning is not ‘a bit of an upset tummy’. Actual food poisoning is projectile vomiting, uncontrollable bowel explosions and stomach cramps that make you beg for death.
Both times, had I thought about it, I would have avoided these luke warm, microbe breeding, gastro producing, bacterial playgrounds.
Friends of mine travelled for six months in India and never became sick once, even though they did eat peeled fruit, meat cooked in the street and various unrecognisable things because their rule of thumb was, if it was piping hot, or completely cooked through, it was probably alright. The fruit and vegetables they bought, they made sure was very fresh and had only just been prepared, or was kept on ice. Bacteria hates the cold.
Boiling oil and water kills most, if not all, bugs, and as long as nothing you are eating that is meaty is only just warm, or has been sitting there all day, or is a little bit pink, you should be OK.
If you do find yourself in a precarious position tummy wise, Imodium and charcoal tablets are an absolute must for the wise traveler. Carry wet sanitising towels too. That way you can at least wash your hands when you have been to the loo….half a dozen times a day….
It’s not only bacteria that can be a problem of course. Parasites such as Giardia lamblia and cryptosporidium love to invade our bodies. These guys are found in water, and are not limited to overseas destinations. Even countries like Australia have outbreaks of these nasties. Common bacterial causes of food poisoning and diarrhoea include campylobacter, salmonella, shigella and Escherichia coli, or E-coli.
If you are someone with an easily upset stomach, a little bit of pre-emptive planning goes a long way.
When you are packing your suitcase, remember to pack some rehydration salts, which can be bought over the counter at chemists under a number of brand names. If the worst happens, at least you can start to replace the fluids and minerals you may have lost. As mentioned, a product like Imodium, and capsule charcoal can ease the symptoms quickly.
Be careful about where you eat, but do not let paranoia ruin your trip. Most bugs are caught in places like toilet stalls or on handrails or door handles.
You cannot travel the world washing everything, so just remember to wash your hands with soap or wipe your hands with wet wipes of some kind.
Allow yourself to build up an immunity to new things, your body is very good at protecting itself if it is allowed to slowly increase its own intestinal army.
If you are travelling for a while, slowly introduce new things and let your body settle into the idea of new and exciting microbe friends.
If you do find yourself crying on the floor with both ends going for gold, seek medical attention quickly. There is nothing heroic about trying to tough it out when your body is losing fluid at a rate of knots. Doctors and nurses would rather speak with a living squirting being than have to phone relatives back at home. Get to a hospital or clinic, explain the situation, and get treatment.
All countries with a history of unclean water also have a history of death by diarrhea. Do not become a statistic at their expense.
Most of all, be sensible about what you put into the hole at the top, it will need to come out of somewhere eventually, try not to make that any more unpleasant than it already is.
Having the travel bug is one thing, having a travel bug is another.