Talking to the great white telephone: Food poisoning while travelling and how to avoid it

Have you ever been travelling and a few hours after eating you get that nauseous feeling. Depending on the virulence of the poisoning it can develop over a few hours or up to 3 days later after eating contaminated food and the symptoms can include stomach cramps, fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. The result of food poisoning is you spend the next few days either speaking to the great white telephone or emptying bits of food that may have been trapped in your bowels for years. I have had food poisoning in Egypt, India, China, Pakistan, South Africa, Botswana and Peru. My wife has had it in South Africa, Thailand and Australia.

This food was fine in Dubai

This food was fine in Dubai

I would be curious to hear about your worse food poisoning experience while travelling and how you dealt with it? Below are some of ours plus a few tips to avoid it and if you cannot how to recover.

Egypt

My first memorable food poisoning was in Egypt at Dahab in the late 1980s. I had spent several weeks travelling around Egypt with no problems including four days on a Felucca up the Nile where everything was cooked by our Captain. My luck was about to change. I took the ferry from Hurgada to Sharm El Sheik and then a bus to Dahab up the road. Dahab was a beautiful spot back then with just a line of restaurants along the beach, a small village and United Nation soldiers drinking too much beer. Dahab also had no electricity except through mobile generators. Within a few days I was sick as a dog for a week in a hut with a dirt floor. I discovered later that all the generators were turned off at night to save fuel. As a result food in the fridge could and did frequently go off. On the bright side the locals were very helpful and gave me several homemade remedies which eventually worked. I then spent another week swimming, eating banana pancakes and taking the day trip to the top of Mt Sinai. There also are a lot worse places to be sick then on the beach at Dahab. On the bright side I have now heard that Dahab is connected to the grid.

India and Delhi Belly

The next time I was sick was in Delhi. I had travelled for weeks in India with no problems. We visited Mumbai, Jasialmeer, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Agra and then Delhi. We decided to splurge and go to an air conditioned pizza restaurant near Connaught Circle. A few hours later I was sick as a dog with the dreaded Delhi belly. Happily I was travelling with a nurse and doctor. We stayed put and after a few days or rest and rehydration I was right as rain. We went on to Northern India, Varanasi, Calcultta and Darjeeling where I avoided any modern air conditioned restaurants and stuck with vegetarian food. There were no repeat incidents.

China

I have been to China several times and only once had food poisoning. This was in 1988 when it was first opened to mass tourism. We were in Guilin and I had eaten a dodgy noodle soup which my friend had avoided. She was a wise woman. A few hours later I was sick as a dog and we had a train to catch which we got but then I got worse and worse. I have to say in the 1980s the trains were packed as back then there was no allocated seating. Hence the train toilets were very memorable and not in a good way. I got so bad that the train conductor began to panic and said we had to get off the train. Again the locals as in Egypt came to the rescue and gave me some homemade medicine which seemed to settle everything down. In the end we got off the train in the middle of nowhere and to this day I still do not know where we were. In the end I survived and on other visits to China I have never had a problem.

Pakistan and why I hate KLM

On another trip to China we went over the Karakorum Highway to Pakistan. We spent a couple of weeks in the Hunza region which is a beautiful spot with amazing scenery and friendly people. I had no problems there but did meet a mad scientist that decided to drink the same water as the locals and got horribly sick. He was studying the glaciers in the area and had a theory about building up immunity to germs. I took away the lesson do not drink the local water especially if the locals tell you not too.

We travelled to Lahore, Islamabad and eventually Karachi to get our flight to Europe and our end destination Malta. We were meeting my partners sister there. We decided to splurge and go to a five star hotel on the day before we left for a slap up meal. They had a buffet with fish soup that smelt and looked good. My girlfriend decided not to have any which was a brilliant decision. Looks can be deceiving. A few hours later I was not a well puppy with a fever and many visits to the toilet. Then the next day I had my worse flight ever and the reason why I never fly KLM anymore. The KLM flights only went once a week to Amsterdam with a connection to Malta 10 hours later. My partner refused to spend another week in Karachi. I had to pretend to be well to get on the plane or she was leaving me there to catch her up later. Happily there was nothing left in my system so I blagged my way on to the plane. This was in the days where smokers were at the back of the plane. Guess where our seats were. One of the stewardesses could see that I was very unwell, high fever, shivering the works. She suggested they put me in business class which was empty but the head steward said no. That stuck in my mind and also lost KLM a lot of business and goodwill over the last 17 years. Eventually we made it to Malta, a doctor came and saw me and several antibiotics later I was swimming in the sea for the month we were there.

Africa and keep away from the cheese

A few days before a major meeting I was organising in Cape Town I decided to go to a mall for lunch. They were selling sushi creamed cheese which I had never heard of and was curious. Well that was a mistake. A few hours later everything in my bodies digestive systems want to leave by any way it could. Luckily my wife was with me and took me to a nearby doctor. He wanted to give me a couple of days bed rest and let it go through my system. However, that was not an option so he gave me an injection to stop the vomiting. I was ok a few days later and we left for a trip to several countries in the region to do a couple safari trips. A week later in Botswana at a safari camp they had some cheese in a buffet which I ate. Once again I got sick as well as my wife, happily she was not as bad as me nor was the meerkat.

Pet meerkat at the safari camp

Pet meercat at the safari camp

I think my system was weakened by the last bout. Once again another doctor gave me more pills and then on to our next safari camp which involved a canoe and me lying in the bottom of it very unwell. My advice for trips to Africa completely avoid cheese.

At least the view from my room was nice in Capetown

At least the view from my room was nice in Capetown

Peru and the Inca’s revenge

My next experience was in Peru in Lima. I ate a fish soup and along with several other people at the meeting became violently sick. My colleague bought a nurse to me who spoke no English but did make sure I was not allergic to penicillin. She told me to take several large looking mysterious pills and I took them. Several of my other colleagues refused to take the pills and they ended up in hospital for several weeks and one had to be medevac’d home! I am glad I took the pills as I was well again in a few days.

Thailand

My wife also had food poisoning. In Bangkok a few years ago combined with heat stroke she became very unwell for a couple of weeks. We are not sure what caused it. It could have been the chocolate high tea she had at a flash hotel or some peanuts from a bowl at a hotel bar. However, the next day we had an interesting ride to Hua Hin from Bangkok. The outcome was a visit to a hospital in Hua Hin for medication and laying by the pool for a week or two.

Recovering at Hua Hin by the pool

Recovering at Hua Hin by the pool

On our flight back from Bangkok we had the opposite service experience with Emirates than what I had with KLM in Pakistan. The ground staff were awful but the head steward on the plane was as star. He arranged for her to have a seat in business class all the way home which made the trip much better.

Australia

It is not only developing countries you can get food poisoning. Last year in Australia Debbie and I ate at the same restaurant in Kuranda just before we took the tourist steam train to Cairns. She had the chicken salad, I had deep fried fish and no salad. We had walked around Kuranda trying to find a restaurant and none appealed to me so we decided to go on the tour guides advice. Bad advice. I can safely say it was the worse food poisoning I had ever seen her have. I will spare you the details but after a day she still managed to do the Great Barrier Reef and a day or so later the bug was gone unlike Thailand.

At least the railway station was nice

At least the railway station was nice

How do you avoid food poisoning and recovery?

I think there is no real way you can avoid food poisoning. You can take a few simple precautions. Wash your hands before eating. If there are no locals in the restaurant then avoid it. Avoid creamed cheese sushi. Avoid fish soup. In the end it is a lottery. In India go vegetarian. Take some tiger balm with you and if you are sick on a train or need to use toilets from the dark ages put some of the tiger balm under your nose.

The key is to rehydrate and if you can get hold of Oral rehydration salts (ORSs) then use them unless you have kidney problems then see a doctor. ORSs can be picked up in sachets from chemists and you just dissolve them in water and drink. They help replace salt, glucose and other minerals you body would have lost from the dehydration through diarrhoea and vomiting. Try to drink between 8 and 14 glasses of liquid during the day. You will know when you are getting better as the colour of your urine will be clear instead of dark.

To help recover you need to rest, eat when you feel up to it and stay with food that are easily digested such as bananas, rice, toast or crackers until you feel better. Avoid, booze, caffeine, spicy or fatty foods that will only make you feel worse.

If your not getting on a plane, train or bus and can stay in one place I would try to avoid anti diarrheal medication such as Imodium, Lonox or Lomotil as it may just slow things down. There are also some home based remedies such apple cider vinegar or activated charcoal in the form of charcoal pills.

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