Staying Healthy While Traveling: Part 1, The Basics

Staying Healthy While Traveling: Part 1, The Basics

March 10, 2011

Anyone who travels regularly to Latin America has heard the questions.  Right after “But isn’t it awfully dangerous?” usually comes “Don’t people get sick down there a lot?”  The answers are no and no – most of Latin American is quite safe, and people who take sensible precautions usually stay perfectly healthy.  The key is to balance caution and adventure, so that you stay healthy while still having fun.

Before you go, make sure your shots are up to date.  Many diseases that are rare here are still widely found in Latin America.  At the very least, make sure your tetanus shot is up to date.  In addition, there are many vaccines available now that may not have existed when you got all those shots as a kid.  For example, there are now vaccines for hepatitis A and B.   These diseases are more common in Latin America than they are here, so you might think about being vaccinated.

Depending on where you are going, a yellow fever vaccine may be required.  Many countries require proof of yellow fever vaccination if you have been in a yellow fever area within the last 6 months.

Now, once you are there….don’t drink the water!  There are a few (very few) places in Latin America where the tap water is clean and safe, but the vast majority of water systems are questionable at best.  In many places, the locals don’t drink the water either (you didn’t think all those bottled-water delivery companies were just for tourists, did you?).  Seriously, this is probably the number one way to stay healthy.  Drink purified water.

If your eco-sensibilities rebel at buying bottle after disposable bottle of water (I know mine do), consider taking along a durable, reusable bottle.  Many hotels offer purified water to their guests.  Fill up your reusable bottle in the morning before you leave, and you’re good for the day.

The next big key to staying healthy is, wash your hands.  Wash them often, with soap, and ideally with hot water.  It’s the good advice at home, it’s even better advice while you are traveling.

In some places, access to running water may be sketchy, or the water itself may be questionable.  Consider carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer.  In general, I hate the stuff (messy, nasty-smelling, and super artificial), but it does have it’s uses.  Travel in the third world certainly qualifies.  So, bring along a little bottle of the stuff, but be sure to keep it in a ziplock bag  – those little bottles tend to leak, and then all your stuff will have that irritating smell.

Now, on to food.  Where food is concerned, you will hear all kinds of sage advice.  My approach is to be sensible without being neurotic.   Balance reasonable precaution with practicality and a sense of adventure.

One good way to start out is to just look at the food and the source.  Has it been sitting out in the sun for hours, with flies walking on it?  Hm, maybe not such a good idea.  Is it a stand or vendor that is doing a brisk business, so the food doesn’t sit around for long?  Probably a better option.

Some foods will clearly be safer than others.  Fruits that can be peeled, for example, are always a good bet – bananas and oranges come with their own protective coating, that you just peel off and discard.  Others, like salads, are a bit more dicey.  Some people believe that you should avoid eating salads or other fresh produce in Latin America.  Personally I douse it heavily in lime juice and hope for the best.  So far, this has served me well.

Despite what the nay-sayers will tell you, don’t be afraid to try street food.  Street food is one of the great treats of travel.  But once again, use some common sense.  Is the food screened or kept under cover, so that flies aren’t walking all over it?   If it is something that should be refrigerated, is it being kept cold?  Or is hot food kept hot (or better yet, are they doing enough business that it doesn’t sit around developing botulism?).  Also, consider eating just a small amount.  My husband and I have eaten at the same taco stand, with the only difference being the number of tacos we ate.  Sure enough, a few hours later those 8 tacos he stuffed down are giving him grief, while the 2 that I ate are not bothering me at all.

You will notice I didn’t suggest only eating in upscale establishments, in tourist areas.  That is no guarantee of food safety – a place can be shiny and clean on the outside, yet still have bad sanitation practices back in the kitchen.  A well-run establishment by the bus station can be as healthy a place to eat as a restaurant in a 5 star hotel.  I certainly don’t think you should avoid nice restaurants, but don’t be lulled into thinking they are automatically safe.

So, suppose it happens, and you get sick.  (Those with weak stomachs might need to stop reading here).  The most common travel-related ailment is, of course, diarrhea and vomiting from some type of food or water borne nasties.  What to do?

First of all, don’t immediately pull out the heavy ammunition.  Often, travel diarrhea resolves itself in a day or two.  Drink plenty of water, and either avoid eating or stick to something simple and starchy like rice.  Remember, your body is trying to get rid of the nasties.  You want them out of your body – don’t immediately prevent your body from doing it’s work.

But let’s say you need to be able to run around and function.  In that case, start with a simple over the counter remedy like Pepto-Bismal or Kaopectate.  Try to take it easy as much as you can, to let your body’s own defenses work things out.

Save the big artillery for when you really need it – you are becoming dehydrated, or you have a long bus ride ahead of you.  Those are the circumstances to resort to Lomotil, or some similar prescription anti-diarrhea medication.  The stuff definitely works, but there is a downside.  It interferes with your body’s healing process, and keeps all the little bugs inside your body, right where you don’t want them. But when you really need it, these medications can be a godsend.

Finally, if you have been violently sick for more than a few days, get thee to a doctor.  Vomiting and diarrhea lead to dehydration.  Dehydration is serious, and potentially fatal.  Ask your hotel to help you find a doctor, and have them call you a taxi to take you there.  They will help,  I promise – the last thing in the world they want is some tourist to drop dead in their hotel.  Don’t worry about the cost at this point.  It is unlikely to bankrupt you, and if you need a doctor’s help, you need a doctor’s help.  Sometimes you just have to be sensible.

So, don’t drink the water and wash your hands!  That, and a reasonable about of care in what you eat, should keep you healthy while traveling.

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