By Amy Thibodeau
It's not a pretty topic, but one that I've become familiar with during the last four weeks in Mexico and something that most avid travelers bump up against at one point or another on their journey. Some lucky people mostly manage to avoid getting a bad stomach while traveling; but for the rest of us, there are a few things I've learned over the past month that might help you cope with tummy problems while you're far away from home.
1. Be prepared: This covers a lot of bases. It means the big things like make sure you have travel insurance that will cover you in case you get really sick and need professional attention; but the every day small details are also important. Depending on where you are traveling, public restrooms (if there are any) may not be equipped with toilet paper or hand-washing facilities; carry a small 'in case of emergency' kit with you if you are venturing far from your base. Make sure to include some toilet paper, wipes, hand-sanitizer, a few plastic bags and over-the-counter medication like Imodium (anti-diarrhea) and Gravol (anti-nausea). At minimum, this will ensure that you are clean and the medication should give you a window of opportunity to get somewhere more private and comfortable if your symptoms persist.
2. Stay hydrated: This is such an obvious one, but it's so easily forgotten. I know that drinking liquids is important, especially in hot climates but when I'm not feeling well I often don't want to ingest anything and it's easy to forget or put it off. Diarrhea and vomiting causes dehydration: "The fluid and electrolytes lost ... need to be replaced promptly because the body cannot function without them. Electrolytes are the salts and minerals that affect the amount of water in your body, muscle activity, and other important functions." Although drinking water is important, it does not contain the electrolytes your body needs to begin to function properly again. Juices or broth will do a better job of restoring your electrolyte balance and in particular, if you can find them, drinks meant for athletes such as Gatorade can speed up the process of restoring balance to your body.
3. Research: Make sure you research the country and region you plan to visit ahead of time and find out whether the water is safe to drink and what other travelers have said about their experiences with local food. If you are going to a smaller village, there may not be a lot of information available online but you can always visit social networking sites like Lonely Planet or Dopplr and query the forums to try to dig up some first-hand knowledge. When in doubt, drink bottled water or boil the water that is available to you prior to consuming it. You can also purchase water filters designed for travelers though I have no personal experience using them so again, do your homework. Remember, if the water isn't safe to drink that also means that it isn't safe to brush your teeth or wash produce with, so adjust all your water consumption accordingly.
4. Follow the locals: This isn't a fool proof way of avoiding the dreaded 'touristas', but I've generally found that restaurants and food stands where an abundance of locals also eat is probably a safer bet than the one sitting empty. Locals will sometimes open up restaurants to cater to Canadian, US, British and European tastes, serving up burgers, fries, pizzas and pastas - they will often charge you a lot more for the luxury of eating familiar comfort food than restaurants serving up local dishes will. In my experience, try to eat local specialties in places that appear popular. If a lot of people are eating there, chances are the standard is probably okay. The 'experts' often advise travelers against eating street food, but in many countries eating off the street is the reality and is also usually the most affordable option. Personally, I'm okay with eating street food as long as the stand appears clean and is popular with locals.
5. Don't over medicate, escalate: In tip number one we mentioned that you should carry a product like Immodium in your 'In Case of Emergency' kit. It's good to have this kind of a product on hand, but if used too frequently, you may be prolonging your problem. Chances are, if you have symptoms like diarrhea or vomiting, your body is reacting to something toxic and it is trying to get rid of whatever is making you sick. Within reason, you should allow this to happen. If you have a long bus trip or hike planned, medication may be the thing you need to get you through but if you are feeling ill and you can take it easy (in range of a bathroom) it is best to let whatever is making you feel unwell run its course. If you are able to find it, plain yogurt or a probiotic like Acidophilous can go a long way in helping you restore the natural balance in your system. If your symptoms persist or get worse, instead of trying to quell them with a temporary solution like medication - see a doctor. Listen to your body - don't ignore how you're feeling.
Quick disclaimer - I am not a doctor and you shouldn't substitute my judgment for that of your physician or another trained professional. These are just a few things that have pulled me through the worst of it, while still being able to fully enjoy my experience traveling - an important part of which is being able to eat and enjoy the local food.
If anyone has any other suggestions for dealing with a bad tummy while traveling, please share the knowledge and let us know in the comments.
Image Credit: So Sick by Rachel Titiriga