How to prevent traveler's diarrhea (traveler's sickness) in South East Asia
HOW TO EAT STREET FOOD IN ASIA WITHOUT BECOMING SICK
Traveler’s sickness or Montezuma’s revenge; as its more humorously known, is so very very real. The cause of traveller’s sickness can be attributed to a myriad of things and exactly how long the debilitating and embarrassing symptoms will last is completely up to your gut.
Many people set off to Asia claiming they have an iron stomach; only to find themselves on the porcelain throne for the entirety of their holiday. So to avoid all that hassle I’m going to reveal my secrets on how to lower your chances of getting traveller’s sickness, without missing out on all the glorious street food South East Asia has to offer!
WHAT IS TRAVELER’S SICKNESS AND HOW IS IT CAUSED?
Traveler’s sickness is a gastrointestinal infection that causes loose stools, vomiting & fever. These symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks (more serious cases).
The cause of traveler’s sickness can be attributed to either stress (simply being in a different country can disrupt your gut bacteria ) or from foreign bacteria/s entering your intestine through food or drink. These bacteria become lodged in your intestine and release toxins that make you sick.
So why do you get sick and the locals don’t? The answer is simple; over time the body becomes accustomed to the bacteria and the gut becomes stronger. As children the locals were probably in the same boat as you, but now that they are adults they literally have iron stomachs.
PRE TRAVEL PRECAUTIONS
There are a few ways to prep your stomach before you go hell bent at the local food market.
The first being probiotics. Probiotics help balance the good bacteria in your gut, which will help fight the bad bacteria you are going to ingest. Probiotics like Yakult & natural greek yoghurt are good, but pharmacy grade probiotics that include some of these strains (below) are more beneficial. Although a little costly, good quality probiotics can reduce your onset and symptoms dramatically.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG
Another form of stomach prep is taking activated charcoal tablets. Charcoal is a well known substance used as an effective treatment against poisons and other nasties you (or your pets) might ingest.
Charcoal is a porous material that absorbs bacteria and other poisons; making it easy for your body to flush out. I find that taking a few activated charcoal tablets before or just after I eat something questionable does the trick. If you are already ill, taking charcoal for the duration of your sickness can improve your recovery time. The only unsettling thing about this treatment is the colour of your poops! You can find activated charcoal tablets in most pharmacies and convenience stores in Vietnam and Thailand or online.
HOW TO AVOID INGESTING TAINTED FOODS/DRINKS
Okay, I’m going to be honest with you. There is no way you are going to be able to reap the culinary rewards of South East Asia without getting a little bit of gastro. Despite this claim, here is my run down of what to look out for if you want to be super vigilant.
Drink only bottled water. This custom becomes tedious & I feel guilty about how much plastic I’ve used. However, In some countries there are filtered water stations you can use to refill your water bottle for only a few cents
Don’t have ice in your drinks. Although, most vendors use commercial ice or boiled water in their ice cubes (indicated by perfectly clear ice)
Make sure your food is hot. The hotter (temperature not spicy level) the more likely the bacteria has been killed
Avoid fish unless it has been killed to order. Read more about my spoilt fish story here…it’s hilariously gross I promise.
Avoid any food that you would consider questionable. Go with your gut, literally. Or don’t….like I did here (another hilarious story)
This list is almost impossible to follow unless you are looking to eat at hotels or high end restaurants for your entire trip (hats off to you if you are!).
THE DO’S AND DON’TS OF TRAVELER’S SICKNESS
Traveler’s sickness is like most gastrointestinal illnesses, in that there are a few things you should do and should not do. Being privy to many bouts of gastro and giardia as a kid (My Mum is a nurse so I got to have all the fun stuff at the hospital too!) I’ve learnt how to contain the infection.
DON’T take medication like gastro stop or loperamide unless you really have to. I’m talking a long haul flight or a bus trip through the jungle of Cambodia. Do NOT take this medication if you are just bound to your hotel room. You want this nasty bacteria out of your body ASAP & taking something that is made to block you up is not going to help.
DO contain the infection in one bathroom if you can. The less you spread this bacteria around the better. To prove the point, traveler’s sickness is mostly caused by fecal matter in food (yup no joke). Wash your hands multiple times after using the bathroom. Close the toilet lid when you flush as not to let particles float around in the air. Change your toothbrush after you are better if you have been vomiting. Don’t handle cooking utensils or other peoples belongings if you have not washed your hands properly.
DON’T trust a fart… ennuf said.
DO keep baby wipes handy.
DON’T be too adventurous with your diet. The more diverse the food you put in your stomach, the more it has to work. Your stomach & intestine are under enough stress without you adding to the war zone that is happening inside you. Cool it with the dairy and caffeine. Keep your meals simple with little to no fiber. I’m talking plain rice people!
DO stay super hydrated. Become like a fish. If you become dehydrated you will run into other health concerns & may need to be hospitalised. Get your hands on some hydralyte or electrolyte tablets from your local pharmacy. For all the liquid you lose you need to replenish it; especially if you are not eating. Stay away from gatorade & other sports drink as they are more sugar than actual beneficial electrolytes. DON’T DRINK ALCOHOL.
DO monitor your stools. If there is any sign of excessive mucus or blood you have a more serious problem. This is even more alarming if your symptoms have lasted more than a week. It’s probably time to see a doctor.
Now you’re all set to tackle your local street food market. I can’t guarantee that you will stay bug free but at least you can reduce your symptoms & avoid food that may cause you harm. If you found this post helpful please share or pin it!