Food Safety Tips for Traveling Abroad

Decades ago people would spend months researching a vacation before traveling to Europe or Asia, but these days travelers will board a plane with minimal consideration to the itinerary, let alone the potential health risks associated with international travel.  And while the level of preparation for foreign travel is changing, food safety continues to remain at the center of potential health risks associated with trips overseas. The consequences of poor food safety practices range from traveler’s diarrhea and cramps, to the more severe and less common, typhoid. The most serious cases may even result in death. Thus, it’s important to be prepared and protect yourself from these types of health concerns whenever traveling outside the United States, whether you’re exploring a new territory or not. Here are a few tips to get your started.

Know Before You Go:

You’ve got your passport ready, money saved up, and your flights and hotel reservations have all been finalized. Now it’s time to review the World Health Organization’s International Travel & Health guide for specific health concerns related to your country of travel, as well as what you can do to prepare for potential health risks. You may also want to consider registering with STEP, or the Smart Travel Enrollment Program, which provides safety alerts from the U.S. government regarding the country you plan to visit.

Also, be sure to pay a visit to your primary care physician (or a travel doctor) 4-5 weeks prior to your departure to get the appropriate vaccinations, as well as to discuss possible medical issues prior to traveling abroad. During this visit, your doctor may provide you with extra medications, antibiotics, first aid basics, etc. that you may not be able to purchase in a drug store abroad.  In addition to these items, request a physician’s note written in English, and the language of the country to which you are traveling, that justifies the use of your medications, since some countries outlaw drugs that are legal in the United States. Also, leave room in your carry-on luggage for these supplies, your medical insurance card, and an emergency contact list.  The contact list should include the local embassy or consulate, as well as relatives to be notified in case of accident or illness, and your insurance company. Finally, consider purchasing short-term travel health insurance if your current health insurance policy does not apply overseas, as good healthcare is often found in the private sector abroad and is very costly.

Once You’ve Reached Your Destination:

It’s best to follow the general health rule-of-thumb and avoid under cooked and/or raw foods, as well as foods that have a high risk of contamination (eggs/egg products, sprouts, dairy, unpasteurized cow or goat’s milk, etc.). Opt for sealed or bottled beverages only, and be sure to avoid tap, well and fountain drinks. Also avoid foods sitting at room temperature, such as on a buffet or street vendor cart.

What to Do in Case of An Illness:

Even when the best precautions are maintained, it is still possible that you may experience a food-borne illness. In this instance, it’s best not to wait to seek medical attention, especially since gastrointestinal problems from food and/or beverages may quickly lead to severe dehydration. Ask your hotel concierge for good healthcare facilities nearby, or contact the U.S. Department of State for help locating medical services. The embassy and your travel health insurance company will also have a list of options nearby.

If being treated in a medical facility abroad,  take health precautions into your own hands. Only accept beverages that are sealed or bottled, and ask your care providers what type of sterilization process they follow prior to accepting care. All injection equipment should be sterilized in boiling water for at least 30  minutes prior to use and discarded afterwards. Also be sure that all healthcare professionals are wearing gloves during your care. Lastly, remain calm and focused on your safety. This will help ensure you get the quality care that you deserve.