It may have fun nicknames—Montezuma’s Revenge, Delhi Belly—but it’s not fun when it strikes. Fortunately, it need not strike often. It’s been 15 years since I last came down with food poisoning overseas. (The culprit was, I think, some lunch meat that sat out too long at an airport in Mexico.) I learned my lesson, and since then—even when traipsing through remotest China, Egypt, India, or Morocco—I’ve found it’s easy to avoid food poisoning as long as you stick to a few simple rules:
- Wash your hands with soap before you eat.
Carry hand sanitizer in case there’s no soap. Carry antiseptic wipes too.
- Drink bottled or sterilized water.
If it’s bottled, make sure the seal is intact. If you’re not sure, opt for bottled carbonated water (since the carbonation is a sign that the seal is intact).
- Don’t pour drinks over ice.
Use ice only if you know it was made with bottled or purified water.
- Brush your teeth with uncontaminated water.
Use bottled, sterilized, or boiled water. (And don’t brush your teeth in the shower, lest you ingest shower water.)
- Use wrapped straws.
Since you’ll be drinking beverages straight out of their bottles (rather than pouring them over ice), wipe the bottle mouth clean. If you’re using a straw, make sure it’s clean. (If you’re headed to really remote developing regions, consider bringing a few wrapped straws with you.)
- Be wary of raw fruits and vegetables.
If you’re tempted by raw produce, wash and peel it yourself, using bottled or sterilized water. Fruits that you can peel without actually touching what you eat—say, bananas—are your safest bet. Avoid salad.
- Steer clear of seafood.
It often has a greater chance of being contaminated than other foods do.
- Choose dishes that are served steaming hot—especially if you’re trying street food.
Say you’re visiting a night market with food stalls: Pick dishes that are boiled in water or otherwise cooked in front of you and served immediately and piping hot. Think boiling soup with vegetables in it, or steaming noodles right out of the wok.
- Avoid platters of cold food.
Anything that’s been sitting out—say, at a buffet—is not a smart choice. In developing countries, Western-style buffets for tourists can actually be less safe than the food eaten by the locals, since they may not know how to handle Western-style food: It may be cooked in advance, stored, then reheated.
- Carry energy bars.
I always pack a supply of Clif Bars—and dig into them when lunch looks iffy. Alternatively, find a local supermarket and buy packaged foods. Pack multi-vitamins and vitamin C too, so you can stay healthy even when you’re not getting the fruits and veggies you’re accustomed to. (One way to get an apple a day is via snack packs of freeze-dried apples.)
- Pack water purification tablets.
Zip a small bottle of Potable Aqua into a pocket of your carry-on. Here are other ways to disinfect drinking water. It’s smart to carry an anti-diarrheal medication, such as Imodium, too. Just remember that neither it, nor Pepto Bismol, provides a cure: They simply get you through the next flight or train trip until that moment when you’ll have access to a decent bathroom again.
- Do your homework.
Wherever you’re going, remember to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s health advice for travelers.
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