Food tips for travellers

If you are travelling overseas, there are a number of precautions that you can take to help minimise the risk of health problems.

You should pay particular attention to the food and drinks you consume to protect against food and waterborne disease. The following are a number of basic tips that may help you avoid problems from food and drink when overseas.

Good hygiene

  • Clean your hands thoroughly with soap and water, handwash or a hand-sanitising solution or gel before preparing or eating food.

Drinking water safety and other drinks

  • Drink only bottled or packaged drinks or drinks that have been boiled or treated to eliminate bacteria and viruses.
  • Bringing clear water to a vigorous boil for at least one minute is generally sufficient to eliminate most pathogens, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At high altitudes, however, water boils at a lower temperature so needs to be boiled for longer - at least 3 minutes.
  • Water purifiers, iodine-based tablets or chlorine tablets (available from camping stores) can be used to make water safer; however they may not kill Giardia or amoebic cysts. The use of iodine water-purifying tablets is not advisable if you are pregnant. Talk to your doctor about any concerns.
  • Bottled water (making sure that it is a named brand and the seal has not been broken) is generally available at most tourist destinations and this should be consumed in preference to local water. Tap water in many areas is not safe.
  • Avoid brushing your teeth with tap water.
  • Avoid ice in your drinks as it may have been made from untreated water or unsafe local water supplies.
  • Avoid milk and milk products.
  • Be cautious when consuming alcoholic beverages in unfamiliar countries - the alcoholic content may not be specified on the label.

Safe eating

  • Be cautious when eating from salad bars and smorgasbords. Don’t eat food from buffets unless you know that the food is fresh and has been kept either hot (above 60°C) or on ice or refrigerated (below 5°C) and has also been protected from insects such as flies.
  • Do not eat food that has been kept at room or outside temperature for long periods or that has been exposed to flies, such as in restaurant buffets, markets and from street vendors.
  • Avoid leafy, cold salads as they are hard to clean and ingredients may have been rinsed with contaminated water.
  • Fruits that you have peeled yourself should be safe; however, do not wash them in the local water after peeling.
  • Vegetables should be cooked or boiled and served steaming hot.
  • Meats need to be thoroughly cooked. Undercooked pork, in particular, should not be eaten because of the risk of the parasite infection trichinosis.
  • Desserts should be baked and served hot. Condiments, sauces and topping should be consumed only if freshly opened as they can be contaminated if not stored properly.
  • Shellfish may cause hepatitis A infection and in areas with 'red tides' (algal blooms) may also contain poisonous biotoxins. They should be avoided in developing countries and after 'red tides'.
  • Avoid carnivorous reef fish, which may be contaminated with ciguatera toxin, particularly if fish are large or in a known ciguatera area. This toxin causes a serious gastrointestinal and neurological illness.
  • If your baby is no longer breast feeding, baby formula prepared from commercial powder and boiled water is the easiest, safest food source if you are concerned about food safety in overseas countries.

Medications to pack

  • If heading overseas, pack some over-the-counter medications for diarrhoea, such as Imodium (loperamide) or Lomotil (diphenoxylate-atropine), as well as fluid and electrolyte replacement medicine - also called oral rehydration salts - such as Gastrolyte or Hydralyte.
  • Indigestion tablets and antacid may also come in handy for an upset stomach caused by unfamiliar foods.

Always check with your doctor or travel health professional before going overseas, as they will be able to give you recommendations and medications for many illnesses that you may contract from local food and drink. Vaccines are available against typhoid and hepatitis A and are effective ways of minimising the risk of contracting these diseases from contaminated food and water.

References

1. World Health Organization. Chapter 3: Environmental health risks. In: International travel and health: situation as on 1 January 2012. Geneva: WHO; 2012:. http://who.int/ith/ITH_EN_2012_WEB_1.2.pdf (accessed Aug 2016).
2. World Health Organization. Guide on safe food for travellers (last reviewed 2010). http://www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/consumer/en/travellers_en.pdf (accessed Aug 2016).
3. CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Traveler’s diarrhea. In: The Yellow Book. CDC health information for international travel 2016. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2016/the-pre-travel-consultation/travelers-diarrhea. (accessed Aug 2016). 4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Water disinfection. ). In: The Yellow Book. CDC health information for international travel 2016. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2016/the-pre-travel-consultation/water-disinfection-for-travelers (accessed Aug 2016).
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food poisoning from marine toxins. . In: The Yellow Book. CDC health information for international travel 2016. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service;. http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2016/the-pre-travel-consultation/food-poisoning-from-marine-toxins (accessed Aug 2016).
6. Queensland Health. Naturally occurring seafood toxins. Consumer fact sheet 37 (last updated Dec 2011). https://www.health.qld.gov.au/foodsafety/documents/fs-37-sea-toxin.pdf (accessed Aug 2016)).
7. World Health Organization. Chapter 6: Vaccine-preventable diseases and vaccine. In: International travel and health2012. Geneva: WHO; 2012. http://who.int/ith/ITH_EN_2012_WEB_1.2.pdf?ua=1 (accessed Aug 2016).
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