Food Poisoning 101

One of the negative things about traveling in underdeveloped countries is the looming possibility of food poisoning.  Before Anthony and I left on this trip we both knew it wouldn’t be a matter of “if” but rather a matter of “when”, and so far I’ve been lucky enough to get hit with it twice.  The irony is that both times Anthony and I have eaten basically the same meals for the few days prior, AND in general I have a stronger stomach than him.  My only guess is that he adds so much spice to everything he eats it ends up killing the wretched bacteria that causes me so much distress. 

I’m writing about this most unflattering of subjects for two reasons.  The first being that I see people constantly asking what to do about food poisoning in the many travel groups we belong to.  I’m lucky enough to have a 24 hour nurse on call (thanks Mommy) so whenever I’m feeling icky I have direct access to someone who knows what they’re talking about.  I’ve seen some pretty crazy advice handed out in the travel groups, and while I’m not a doctor, I’m proof that my mom knows what she’s talking about, and I want to share the wealth! The second reason is just simple honesty!  Traveling is not all sunshine and rainbows, and it’s so easy to just write about the great stuff while ignoring the real stuff.  If you’re going to travel long-term you have to be prepared for all of the bumps!  At the end of the day it’s often the things that go wrong that make the best stories!

Before we left for Southeast Asia we heard the same warnings from people over and over again.   Don’t drink the water (duh), don’t eat any fruits or vegetables unless they’re cooked, don’t order meat unless it’s well done, don’t eat street food.  Now, let me just say, besides the water thing, I’ve ignored every single one of these tips, BUT in almost twelve months of travel, I’ve only had food poisoning twice.  To me those are pretty good odds!  While it is absolutely awful when I end up spending 12 hours hugging the toilet, I would still say it has been worth it.  If you haven’t figured it out by now, Anthony and I love street food, and to be honest, the very first time I had food poisoning it was from a five star hotel. 

I’ve mentioned my trip to Peru a few times on the blog, but let me just recap.  It was the first time I left the country, and not only were my godfather and his wife generous enough to take my sister and I along on the trip, we also spent a lot of time staying in some VERY nice hotels.  When you’re eating dinner at a place with white linen table clothes and beautiful china the last thing on your mind is food poisoning.  Alas, that is exactly what happened.  To be fair it was partly my fault.  I ordered a pureed spinach salad without thinking about the fact that “pureed” does not in fact mean cooked.  Needless to say I spent the better part of the next day with my head in the toilet, and while it wasn’t fun it wasn’t horrific.

Flash forward to the end of our trip.  At this point everyone had ended up with some sort of stomach issue besides my sister, but I was the lucky one that got it twice.  Must have been making up for the fact that she didn’t get anything at all.  One tip when you have food poisoning in a foreign country: don’t call your mother from the hotel bathroom begging her to pick you up from Peru.  She won’t be able to, and you’ll make her cry because she can hear her poor baby crying and puking at the same time while begging her to get on the next flight.  Sorry Mom. 

The second bout was a thousand times worse than the first, and I spent our last night in Peru and the whole ride to the airport convinced I was going to die.  We did get a few sick kids perks (i.e. we were able to board the plane first so I could hide in the bathroom until take off), but for the most part it was a gross disaster.  Luckily I managed to feel better somewhere over Mexico, so when we had to part ways with my god family in Texas they were no longer worried I was exorcising a demon.  My parents greeted us in Raleigh with a box of saltines and ginger ale, which I casually waved away before demanding McDonald’s.  My dad’s favorite part of the whole story.  But let’s be real, I was a growing teenager who hadn’t eaten anything in almost 24 hours.  Saltines were NOT going to cut it.

The pain of my first experience with food poisoning finally became a distant memory until about four months into our current trip.  After the horrendous experience I’d had with a salad in Peru, I spent the first month or so avoiding salads in Asia.  I had no problem eating raw veggies and fruits, but anytime a leafy green was involved I stayed away.  Eventually I got pretty complacent, and started testing the waters, and by the time we left Phnom Penh I’d thrown caution to the wind and was eating a salad at least twice a week.  I made sure to get them from places I trusted, but for the most part the fear of getting sick was gone. 

Unfortunately my luck eventually ran out.  After a pretty much sleepless overnight train ride from Phong Nha to Ninh Binh, I woke up from a nap and immediately threw up my entire breakfast.  I then spent the next 16 hours in a state of complete misery.  Of course I called my mom and she told me not to eat or drink anything until I hadn’t been sick for four hours.  This was maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but the bacteria has to come out, and adding anything to your stomach will just make it hold on that much longer.  This didn’t change the fact that I was so thirsty that Anthony started looking like a giant water bottle.  Eventually I caved and took two TINY sips of water, and of course I ended up being sick for an extra five hours because my stomach wasn’t ready.  Mom really does know best.  I fell asleep dreaming about the ice cold water I’d finally get to drink the next day. 

Most people are concerned about dehydration when they have food poisoning, but the fact is that if you’re an otherwise healthy adult it should be fine as long as your symptoms go away in a reasonable amount of time.  And frankly, I’d take a little dehydration over extra hours of illness any day of the week.  Water is also very cheap in Southeast Asia, and you can get just about anything you’d need for recovery over the counter at any pharmacy, so unless you’ve been sick for days or there’s something glaringly wrong, try not to worry too much and just ride it out.  Luckily instant noodles are available everywhere, so you’ll have just what you need to nurse your stomach back to it’s normal strength.     

I’m not entirely sure what made me sick this time around, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the fact that I ate three salads in the days prior to my day of disease.  Our hostel in Phong Nha was a really nice place run by westerners, but the fact is that Phong Nha is one of the least developed places in all of Vietnam.  I was so comfortable by that time that it didn’t cross my mind to be careful even though it probably should have.  Either way I survived despite the fact that I was 100% convinced that I was dying, and Anthony got to witness me reenacting scenes from the Exorcist.  Win win. 

(*Sidenote: The whole time I was sick Anthony kept trying to help me.  I pretty much told him to get the hell out of the bathroom before I threw up on him, but it was still nice to have him there to comfort me. Traveling with your significant other truly is what you make of it.)

Ultimately people heading out on the road have to be prepared for obstacles, and the fact is that stomach issues are some of the most common.  Even just traveling to Europe there’s the potential for disrupted digestion.  Any form of upset stomach is pretty terrible, but I wouldn’t change a thing in spite of being very sick twice on this trip, and having a host of other stomach issues along the way.  It’s just part of the journey.  I should say to be careful, but the fact is that I’m still not all that careful when it comes to food.  My questionable food choices to illness ratio is pretty good, and I do make sure to use common sense.  But in all seriousness, if something is delicious, I’m going to eat it, even if it did come from a guy with no teeth smoking a cigarette.  And honestly the last time I had food poisoning I spent the next four days eating nothing but fresh baguettes so if nothing else, it’s at least an excuse to live off bread for a few days! Just remember, it’s not if, but when, and you’re not the first (nor will you be the last) to be stuck in the bathroom for the better part of the day.  Just do me a favor, and don’t call my mom.  She gets really sad when she can’t help someone while they’re sick. 

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5 thoughts on “Food Poisoning 101”

  1. So glad you listened to Mom. NPs are pretty darn perceptive and know what to do! Are you coming home yet?? Safe and healthy traveling!

    1. I always listen to Mom! She knows what she’s talking about. We’ll be home at the end of May so we have a few months to go! Thank you!!

  2. Great read and great info. Sorry you had to be the one to go through it! BTW, I need to adopt this:

    “My only guess is that he adds so much spice to everything he eats it ends up killing the wretched bacteria”

    1. Thanks Marty! It sucks, but like I said, it’s just part of the trip! And seriously, spiciness must be the key because he’s dodged the food poisoning bullet twice now!

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