It was 6am in our hostel in Lima, Peru and I was heading back from the shared bathroom to our room in my underwear. As I came back into the room, Lee sleepily asked me why I was walking around the hostel barely dressed.
“It was urgent, I didn’t have time to get dressed.”
That unpleasant awakening was the beginning of a long day of lying in bed, curled up with stomach cramps and frequent running to the toilet. I’ll spare you the details – but suffice it to say it was not pleasant.
Lee and I have been travelling the world for about 3 years now and we have only been stricken with food poisoning that one time in Lima. After having a full case of food poisoning, we learned that it is much more than just a dodgy tummy – it leaves you feeling dizzy, achy, tired, feverish and light headed as well and it took us at least 2-3 days until our digestive systems started to function normally again.
Fortunately, we survived our stomach bug and are back to normal. Hopefully, it will not happen to us again any time soon. We thought we would pass long the lessons that we learned, so if you find yourself ill with food poisoning in a foreign country you will know what to do.
Tips for Avoiding it in the First Place
First, there are some tips that you can keep in mind to reduce your chances of contracting food poisoning at all. When you are eating at food stalls, it is good practice to eat at the stalls that are them busiest – especially if they are frequented by many locals. This means that their food is eaten and safely enjoyed by many others and it also means that the food will be consumed and rotated often, rather than sitting out in the heat all day. A good safe bet is food that is cooked right in front of you, so that you know it is fresh. Take a look and a sniff of your food before you eat it. Your instincts will tell you whether it looks or smells wrong! Don’t eat it if the smell or taste is off.
Some people will suggest avoiding street food and hawker stalls altogether and only eating at chain restaurants. However, my personal travel opinion is that the fear of food poisoning should never stop you from eating the local cuisine. Poor food hygiene habits can happen in any restaurant and missing out on the pleasures of cheap and delicious street food would be the ultimate shame. Remember, Lee and I travelled for 3 years and ate countless meals from street vendors all over Europe, Asia and South America before our first food poisoning case. Just be smart with your choices and your chances of getting sick will be low.
What to Do if You Get Sick
Ok, so what should you do if you have food poisoning during your adventures? Here are our tips:
- Don’t plan on going anywhere for at least 24-48 hours. Cancel any travel plans and get comfortable in your hotel or hostel and just rest – your body needs to conserve energy to recover. If you try to carry on without giving yourself a chance to recuperate, you will make the illness last longer. Besides, you won’t want to be walking around sightseeing and then urgently need the toilet!
- Keep hydrated. You will be losing a lot of fluids, so it is vital to keep your body hydrated. Being dehydrated will sap your energy and make you feel even worse. Drink water – but avoid soda or other sweet drinks which will irritate your stomach.
- Sleep. On the first day Lee and I were ill, we slept most of the afternoon. Again, this was the best thing for our bodies because they needed to recover.
- Have something to do that will occupy your mind. Lying in bed ill is boring, so download some of your favourite movies or TV shows to pass the time. I think we watched about 10 episodes of Breaking Bad that day!
- Head to the pharmacist and get some loperamide-based drug, such as Imodium. We bought plenty so that we have some in case it happens again.
- Listen to your body. If the thought of eating is repulsive, don’t eat just because you think you “need to eat something”. I learned that my body would tell me when it was ready for food again and that I shouldn’t eat before then.
- When you start eating again, stick to simple foods like bananas, toast, crackers and rice until you feel better again.
Most of the time when you have food poisoning while travelling abroad, you will be able to just tough it out and you will be back to normal in a couple of days. However, if your symptoms are severe you should seek medical attention. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should see a doctor if you are experiencing frequent vomiting for more than two days, severe diarrhoea lasting more than three days, blood in your vomit or diarrhoea, high fever or extreme abdominal pain. If this happens to you, get to a doctor (and make sure you have travel insurance).
Have you ever had food poisoning while abroad? How did you survive the ordeal? Let us know your stories in the comments!