Backpacking Illness from Food and Drink

Backpacking in a foreign country allows you to experience the unique sights, sounds and tastes that most travellers are not privy to given their hotel accommodation and restaurant meals. It may be exciting to tuck into delectable fast foods offered by roadside vendors or experience the local brew from street sellers but the potential hazards with food and drink may mean a trip to the emergency room. The golden rule for any traveller, whether backpacking or travelling with a tour group, is that what is safe for the locals is usually not for visitors, especially in developing countries.

Traveller's diarrhoea is the most common illness among visitors in a foreign country and can quickly put a damper on your backpacking experience. It is most often caused by bacteria, or less commonly viral and parasitic infections, most often acquired through contaminated foods and drinks. Given that a foreigner usually does not have the same natural immunity and tolerance as locals, a seemingly safe food or drink stall may be a hive of contamination.

Reputable restaurants and hotel food are often the better choice for meals as they are usually monitored by local health authorities and cater for an international traveller's tolerance. However, caution should be exercised even in these establishments.

Simple measures to avoid traveller's diarrhoea include

  • Eating only freshly prepared and hot meals
  • Avoiding the local tap water, including ice cubes
  • Drinking bottled water from reputable manufacturers
  • Staying away from fresh produce like fruits and vegetables that may be washed with tap water and irrigated by local rivers

Less frequent illnesses from foods and drinks that may befall backpackers are caused by local waterborne pathogens. From the seasonal outbreaks of lesser known viral diseases to contaminated local delicacies, any traveller is prone to an infection that could be more debilitating that traveller's diarrhoea. Practising good hygiene, especially when eating, will limit your exposure to local contaminants that may enter the body through the mouth. Avoid eating with your hands but ensure that eating utensils are clean and properly disinfected. While airborne pathogens are unavoidable, waterborne infections most often spread through contaminated food, water, utensils and crockery.

Salmonella poisoning (salmonellosis) and hepatitis A may often be confused with the common traveller's diarrhoea but without immediate medical attention, both can result in severe complications, that could be life threatening. Rare diseases from contaminated food and drink, like cholera and botulism, are usually not a concern for most backpackers but avoiding local water sources and preserved foods is important in preventing these illnesses. Immunisation only covers a handful of infectious diseases and usually does not cater for common illnesses from food and drinks. Caution and fastidiousness when eating and drinking is your greatest protection when consuming food or partaking in local drinks on your backpacking trip.