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Food and Water Risks During Travel

Food & Water Safety while Traveling Abroad

Food and water contamination is one of the leading causes of illness in vacationers and travelers, as pathogens and bacteria unexpectedly find themselves in the drinking water, buffets, cocktails and food of tourists. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common infections for travelers — including bacterial dysentery, Escherichia coli, giardiasis, shigellosis and noroviruses — are caused by consuming inadequately prepared and treated food and water.

Though travelers visiting developing countries and areas with relaxed sanitary conditions sustain risk of developing infectious diseases including typhoid fever, cholera, rotavirus infections, and other samonelloses, the most common infection for travelers remains traveler’s diarrhea (TD). The CDC estimates that more than 10 million people, 20 to 50 percent of travelers, contract TD each year. Escherichia coli (ETEC) is the primary cause of 80 percent of all TD cases worldwide, though it can easily be prevented with safety food and water consumption practices.

Tips for Food Consumption

  • Avoid all raw foods, especially in developing countries

  • Be weary of salads, uncooked vegetables and unpasteurized milk, cream or cheeses

  • Avoid condiments including mayonnaise

  • Order meats well-done or medium well in unsafe areas

  • Use creams in coffee and teas only if they are properly sealed or pasteurized

  • Avoid cold meat and cheese platters if they have been allowed to stand for hours

  • Avoid shellfish that may not be properly cleaned or cooked

  • Do not purchase from street vendors in unsafe areas

  • Avoid running or undercooked eggs

  • Peel or wash fruit, vegetables yourself

Tips for Water/Beverage Consumption

  • Consumer beverages that are in sealed containers or bottles

  • Drink bottled water if possible

  • Clean the tops of all beverage containers prior to use

  • Avoid using tap water in unsafe areas for brushing your teeth

  • Boil, treat drinking water in unsafe areas prior to consumption

Water Treatment Methods
If consuming water in an unsafe or possible contaminated area, including developing countries, first treat the water using one of the CDC suggested methods. According to research, travelers can not only become ill through drinking contaminated water, but through other direct contact with water and bacteria or viruses. In addition to following important water treatment methods prior to consuming drinking water, travelers should also try and avoid swimming water that may be contaminated by human or animal sewage, storm drains or bacteria.

Bottled Water
Drinking bottled water while traveling is the healthiest way to ensure your drinking water is free from bacteria, viruses and other water-born diseases. To be extra safe, make sure all bottle water is sealed prior to drinking.

Boiling Water
The best way to kill all water-born diseases is to boil drinking water, which kills all the viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause TD. Water should be brought to a boil for at least one minute, then allowed to cool to room temperature before consuming. Adding a touch of salt can improve the taste of drinking water.

*Water must be boiled for at least three minutes in altitudes greater than 2,000 meters.

Chemical Treatment
Though boiling water is the best disinfectant option, chemicals can also be used to make drinking water suitable for consumption. Iodine tablets can be purchased at pharmacies and outdoor/sporting goods stores. Using these tablets according to the manufacturer’s directions can kill most water-born illnesses expect TD-related parasites.

Portable Water Filters
Travelers can also purchase portable water filters to remove water-born disease agents. Some water filters are able to remove TD-causing bacteria, while other may require both filters and chemical treatments. After handling portable water filters, travelers should make sure to wash their hands of any chemicals or bacteria that may have collected on the filters.

* pregnant women, children, the elderly and travelers with weaken immune systems should avoid consuming chemically-treated water sources if possible.

For more information and tips on safe food and water sources while traveling, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.