Here’s how to avoid food poisoning when travelling (traveller’s diarrhoea)

Avoiding the perils of traveller’s diarrhoea with sage advice. This sourced photo is for illustration purposes only. Photo: Pexels

Suffering food poisoning while travelling is not only unpleasant and inconvenient, it can pose a significant danger to the person and potentially those around them. A travel doctor offers invaluable advice for avoiding the common perils of traveller’s diarrhoea, whether you are planning a local road trip or flying to an international destination for work or a holiday.

“Food poisoning is perhaps the most common travel illness,” Netcare Medicross’ Dr Pete Vincent points out, “and can spread rapidly through contaminated food or water, and from one infected person to others through invisible traces of the germs carried from hand to mouth.

“When we are travelling and eating unfamiliar foods the probability of picking up a ‘tummy bug’ and transmitting it to others increases, and it is well worth exercising a few extra precautions to avoid this.

“Certain foods are considered especially high risk for potential food poisoning. The symptoms may start anywhere from a few hours after ingesting the bacteria up to four days later.”. Hamburgers, roadside pies and other pre-prepared foods where handling or temperature control could be compromised. Shellfish and prawns. Undercooked meat or seafood. Pre-prepared raw fruit or salads. Only eat fruits you can peel yourself, such as bananas and citrus. Dairy products, unless made with boiled or pasteurised milk. Dishes that require a lot of handling to prepare. Any food that is not served steaming hot

Safer choices include dry crackers, fresh bread or toast, jams and syrup that do not generally support rapid microbial growth.

“If there is any doubt about the quality of the tap water, rather stick to sparkling bottled water or boil the water before drinking it or using it to brush your teeth,” Vincent advises. “Avoid taking ice that could potentially be contaminated or made with unsafe water.

“Give some thought to where you choose to eat, and rather opt for popular freshly prepared dishes that are well supported. A useful traveller’s tip is to look out for where the local office workers buy their lunch, and you will generally be assured of fresh, safe food where there is a regular high turnover.”

He pointed out that it is not always possible to control all factors in the supply chain and preparation before it reaches the consumer, which could impact food quality. A good starting point is if you can see where the food is being prepared.

“It is essential that restaurants and eateries not only take hygiene and temperature control on their premises extremely seriously, but also ensure staff and suppliers are following good practices – especially in terms of food handling and storage, and hand hygiene.

“Anyone who experiences symptoms of diarrhoea, fever, nausea or vomiting should book an appointment with a doctor or clinic and should not report for work until given the all-clear. Where needed, healthcare professionals work together with the Department of Health and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases [NICD] to report, track and prevent potential outbreaks of serious contagious pathogens to protect the public.

“This is especially crucial for anyone working in food preparation or handling, where a person with one of the more highly infectious forms of traveller’s diarrhoea, such as enteroinvasive E. coli, could potentially spread it to many more people very quickly. After symptoms resolve, food handlers should stay home for another two days before returning to duties, and for up to a month, very strict handwashing and gloves are required.

“Similarly, on a long bus journey or an international flight, the contagious potential of one infected passenger could lead to a significant outbreak. Enteroinvasive E. coli infection can develop into severe dysentery with blood in the stool within hours and may require hospitalisation.

“It is, therefore, crucial to get medical advice if you have any suspicion of food poisoning, especially if you have plans to travel and always to be mindful of good food and hand hygiene principles. Our decisions not only affect our own health, but we also have a responsibility to prevent passing on illness to others.”

To be prepared while travelling Vincent recommends including anti-nausea remedies and rehydration sachets in your first aid kit for use in conjunction with prescribed antibiotics.

“Vaccinations have a big part in food poisoning prevention. If travelling to the South Pacific for any length of time, typhoid vaccination is always recommended. Be sure you know your hepatitis A status, and if you are not immune, then you need to have a series of three vaccines before being safe to travel, as hepatitis A is a highly infectious viral infection causing jaundice and is usually passed on in food handling.

“Awareness can go a long way towards preventing food poisoning and making your travel experience memorable for the right reasons,” he concludes.

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