Health tips for travellers: How to prevent food- and waterborne diseases

Do you often get diarrhoea while travelling? You may have had contaminated food or water, which can also cause food- and waterborne diseases.

Many travel-related diseases, such as traveller’s diarrhoea, hepatitis A and typhoid, are caused by contaminated food and water. 

Although it can be difficult to completely avoid, we give you tips on how to minimise your risk of catching a food- or waterborne disease while away.

What is a food- or waterborne disease?

Food- and waterborne diseases are caused by contaminated food and water, and contamination can occur in many different ways.

For example, water can get contaminated if animal or human feces gets into it. 

If produce, such as lettuce and fruits, are washed with contaminated water, it may become contaminated. Food that is left out for too long, for instance in buffets, can allow bacteria to grow and thus also get contaminated.

What can you do to avoid food- and waterborne diseases?

There are a number of things you can do to minimise your risk of catching a food- or waterborne disease while away.

One of the most important things to remember when you are abroad is hand hygiene. Make sure to always wash your hands after visiting the toilet, changing nappies and before preparing or eating food. It’s a good idea to always carry alcohol hand gel with you in case hand-washing facilities are poor or not available at all.

It is also very important to pay special attention to what you eat and drink while travelling, as food- and waterborne diseases are caused by contaminated food and water. 

In general, it is considered safe to eat thoroughly cooked food that is served piping hot, fruits that you can peel yourself, such as bananas and oranges, and pasteurised dairy products, such as yoghurt, milk and cheese. 

Unopened canned and bottled drinks, and drinks made with boiled water and served steaming hot, such as tea and coffee, are usually also safe.

But while there are things you can eat and drink safely during your stay in risk areas, there are also some foods and drinks that you should avoid, as they are more likely to be contaminated. These include:

  • salads, uncooked fruit and vegetables (unless you wash and peel it yourself)

  • fresh or cooked food that has been left uncovered, such as buffets

  • unpasteurised dairy products, like milk, cheese, ice cream and yoghurt

  • food containing raw or uncooked eggs, for example mayonnaise

  • raw or undercooked meat, fish or shellfish, including oysters

  • street food

  • ice and ice cubes

What should you do if you become unwell?

Because of the many different ways in which water and food can get contaminated, it is important to be aware of the sources as well as the symptoms, so you can take action in case you don’t feel well.

You should see a doctor immediately if you:

  • have had diarrhoea for over five days

  • have diarrhoea and a temperature above 38.5 degrees

  • have blood or mucus in your stool

  • are generally unwell (may include severe dehydration)

  • experience other worrying symptoms such as severe stomach pain, jaundice or a rash

If you have returned from your trip with diarrhoea, you should see a doctor if your symptoms do not improve within three days. Elderly, children and other travellers at higher risk should be taken to a doctor earlier if they are not able to keep fluids down or are showing signs of dehydration.

What if you can’t remember everything?

If you follow the above-mentioned tips, you minimise your risk of getting a food- or waterborne disease. However, it can be difficult to remember everything. If in doubt, it is recommended that you avoid it, so you can stay safe and enjoy your travels!

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