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Food & Drink

Sheep Heads "Be careful what you eat" is common advice to travellers, but very few truly understand its implications. Detailed advice on the general principles of food safety is of crucial importance to travellers.

Diarrhoea affects an estimated 20-50% of all travellers. It may cause anything from embarrassment and inconvenience to misery and disruption of travel and business plans. For vulnerable people it may even be fatal, sometimes within a few hours, if not promptly and effectively treated. Besides those that cause diarrhoea, other diseases that may be acquired by travellers from food and water include typhoid and paratyphoid fevers, poliomyelitis, viral hepatitis A and various parasitic infections.

Contaminated food and drink are the most common sources of these infections. Careful selection and preparation of food and drink offer the best protection; unfortunately, the appearance of food is no guide as to its safety and contaminated food can appear appetizing. Eating safely when travelling means not always being able to eat when, where and what one wishes.

Precautions
  • The main personal precaution is to consider unpasteurised milk, non-bottled drinks and uncooked food, apart from fruit and vegetables that can be peeled or shelled, as they are likely to be contaminated and therefore possibly unsafe.
  • Dishes containing raw or undercooked eggs, such as home-made mayonnaise, some sauces (e.g hollandaise) and some desserts (e.g mousses), may be dangerous
  • Ice-cream from unreliable sources is frequently contaminated and constitutes a danger
  • Even with cooked food, the traveller should ensure that it has been thoroughly and freshly cooked, ie that it is piping hot.
  • Foods that are cooked in advance need to be held at a temperature of below 10 C or above 60 C to ensure their safety.
  • Cooked food held at ambient temperatures (15-40 C) for some time (more than 4-5 hours) constitutes one of the greatest risks of food borne disease, since contaminating or surviving bacteria may multiply in it.
  • Unpasteurised milk should be boiled before it is drunk.
  • Drinking water should be boiled or chlorinated and filtered, unless its safety can be assured.
  • Ice should be avoided unless made from safe water.
  • Beverages such as wine or beer, hot tea or coffee, and carbonated soft drinks or fruit juices that are bottled or otherwise packaged are usually safe to drink.
  • The use of slow-release disinfectant agents in water or of filter attachments to domestic taps, if proven to give safe and reliable disinfection, may be considered.
Travellers should always remember the popular advice "Cook it, peel it or leave it". Before travelling you should make sure your medical kit contains oral rehydration salts. If you expect to face situations where safe drinking water is not available, you should also take with you water disinfectant agents.

At certain times of the year, various species of fish and shellfish contain poisonous biotoxins even if well cooked. Advice should be sought from the local population on these dangerous species.

Where there is no alternative to unsafe food, smaller quantities might reduce the risk: your gastric acid (stomach acid) has some protective effect. Travellers might also consider missing a meal - many can afford to lose a little weight and it is better to do so from choice rather than through illness.

Related Articles

  • Diarrhoea - further information
  • Water - all you need to know - purification, filters, storage etc


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Information published on this website is not a substitute for professional medical care or advice but should be used only as an aid in understanding current medical knowledge. A Doctor should always be consulted for any health problem or medical condition.

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