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You could say I’m something of an expert in dealing with food poisoning during travel. Although I’m generally healthy — at home, I almost never fall ill, the occasional cold or sinus infection notwithstanding — I usually succumb to at least one bout of food poisoning per trip.
I would like to tell you that avoiding food-borne illness during travel is as simple as being judicious about where you buy your food but unfortunately, microbes don’t only hang out in sketchy-looking restaurants and food stalls. Indeed, your best defense against food poisoning when you travel is learning to recognize its symptoms quickly, and to deal with them effectively.
Signs and Symptoms of Food Poisoning
If you read my article about the Christmas I spent sick in Shanghai, you’ll know that I had formidable experience with food poisoning prior to departing China on my “big” trip. When I started getting chills as night fell in humid, balmy Vientiane, Laos a few months later, I knew something was up.
I returned to my hotel room after I finished eating with the intention of changing clothes, only to find myself too cold, tired and achy to get up off my bed. To be sure, I’ve found that food poisoning usually comes on in a subtle, deceptive manner, mimicking a generally feeling of fatigue and, as time passes, malaise. If you start getting a headache or body aches to complement your chills or tiredness, you should probably be concerned.
Ironically, I’ve found the gastrointestinal symptoms of food poisoning are among the last to set in. If we assume I went back to my Vientiane hotel room at 8 p.m., it wasn’t until probably midnight that I took my first trip to the toilet. Unfortunately, once you do start experiencing these symptoms, they are unlikely to let up quickly.
Thankfully, although you will alternate between vomiting and diarrhea, none of your excretion is likely to be particularly explosive. When I fell ill in Mandalay, Myanmar a few months after getting sick in Laos, I more often wanted to shit or puke than felt I had to — the pain and pressure in my abdomen alerted me to the presence of an unwelcome visitor that needed to get the F out.
Seeking Medical Treatment During Travel
Unfortunately, travel illness isn’t always something you can get over without medical treatment. Out of the half-dozen or so times I’ve fallen ill with food poisoning during travel, I sought professional medical attention for two of them.
My fever in Laos got so high that I was concerned it was Dengue, so I took a tuk-tuk to Vientiane’s international hospital before it opened, and waited for the staff to arrive. After hours of examination, testing and a relatively substantial blood sample, I was given a huge bag of pills to cure the bacterial infection that had control of my digestive tract.
In Myanmar, I become so incapacitated by my sickness that I braved a 30-minute journey in the back of a pickup truck to the only English-speaking doctor in Mandalay. As the medical professional in Laos had done, he prescribed me no less than 10 different medications, from antibiotics for the infection to activated charcoal to combat nausea.
Of course, I allowed my other four instances of food poisoning to run their courses, so I’m not sure to what extent seeking medical treatment for travel sickness actually helped me fight it. Perhaps the benefit was entirely psychological? As a general rule, if you feel like you aren’t getting better after a day or so of sickness, seek medical attention, if only for peace of mind.
Travel Sickness Coping Strategies
Whether you head to a hospital or tough it out on your own, it will take some time for your food-borne travel illness to dissipate. The first coping strategy I recommend is that you get your own hotel room — or, if you’re staying in a hostel, a private single with an ensuite bathroom.
Quiet and privacy will not only increase the quality of your rest, but they are also practically beneficial. When I fell ill in Essaouira, Morocco after eating sketchy street meat, I was in probably the most echo-y hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Every time I vomited (thankfully, not much came out of the back end during this particular bout of travel sickness), the heaving sound reverberated throughout the entire building.
If your room has a bathtub, occasional hot baths can help you alleviate fever symptoms, although you shouldn’t overdo it — I usually do. Not surprisingly, frequent dips in extremely hot water will raise your temperature even higher, which can have disastrous consequences if you aren’t careful.
Once you get your appetite back, eat mild, bland food, but don’t just buy the cheapest thing you can find at the supermarket, even if you’re on a strict budget. Pampering yourself, even slightly, is essential to recovering from your illness.
How Long Should You Rest?
My recovery times have been different each time I fell ill with travel sickness. In Laos, I got sick on a Tuesday night; on Wednesday night, I was on an overnight train to Bangkok, albeit extremely reluctantly.
In Myanmar, I was incapacitated for around 48 hours before I flew back to Thailand. My Moroccan sickness was a 24 hours bug; At the end of my recent trip to Australia, I experienced fierce gastrointestinal discomfort for a solid three days, including when I was trying to enjoy the overrated Whitsunday Islands.
You should allow yourself as much time as you feel you need to recover, but keep in mind that at some point, you need to take control over the sickness (and your weathered body) and get going again. A body at rest will stay at rest; and it’s your job to put yours back into motion, which is the key ingredient in getting back to 100% and traveling at your normal intensity level.
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