Food poisoning. Are there two words more dreaded by any traveler? Probably not. Food poisoning in Thailand is a risk that every traveler should be aware of.
Microbes and bacteria that our bodies are completely unfamiliar with lurk everywhere and one bit of bad luck is all it takes for them to invade and disrupt the sensitive balance found within our digestive system. And the food poisoning timeline is an unforgiving one. Moments after you feel ill the worst can begin…
There are many ways you can introduce “bad bacteria” into your system. Drinking contaminated water or eating spoiled meat is not the only way to let these microbes into your body. Many developing countries have hygiene standards that are not up to par with those of North America and Europe, and all it takes is one pair of unwashed wands handling your food to trigger days of discomfort.
Randi and I were recently unfortunate enough to eat or drink something contaminated, and boy, we suffered for it. Our ordeal began early one evening with the sudden and dramatic onset of stomach cramping, nausea, and sweating. This happened to be the best part of the night, it was pretty much all downhill from there. Projectile vomiting and diarrhea soon followed and the next twelve hours of our lives devolved into a series of foot races to the toilet. Our time outside the bathroom was spent curled up in a fetal position, shivering and aching, wondering if death had chosen that night to come calling.
It was really THAT bad. It would have been comical if the reality wasn’t so miserable. The food poisoning timeline was fast and furious, to say the least.
Thankfully we were in a position to rest, rehydrate, and recuperate. The process took a few days, the first two of which we were utterly useless. Anything more demanding than a 10 minute walk was hard to conceive of, and even harder to act on. We drank a lot of water but we didn’t start drinking Oral Hydratation Solution until the third day, and it wasn’t until then that our strength began to return. By the 5th day our appetites came back, and we started eating regular food again.
If you are reading this because you, or a friend of yours, is suffering mightily right now, we feel your pain. We’e been there, walked in your shoes and we know how badly it sucks. But you WILL get through this. Believe that and take all steps to ensure your quickest possible recovery. You, too, will have survived food poisoning in Thailand.
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Food Poisoning Timeline – Preventing Food Poisoning
The best way to recover from food poisoning or T.D. (traveler’s diarrhea) is to not get it in the first place. Let’s be honest, this is not always possible, as even the most cautious traveler can consume something they think is safe…but isn’t. However, here are a few key points for preventing food poisoning in Thailand, or anywhere else you might travel, and minimizing your risk.
Preventing Food Poisoning While Traveling in Thailand or Elsewhere
No fresh leafy greens – Unless you are absolutely sure these have been copiously washed with filtered water it is best to avoid eating anything in this category. Cooked greens are usually ok, especially in boiled soups. In the same vein don’t eat raw unpeeled fruit or vegetables.
Avoid Ice – Most restaurants/hotels/bars in touristy areas use ice that comes from frozen mineral water, and they have it delivered daily. Usually best to ask first if the ice is made from tap water before ordering anything with ice in it, however.
Wash your hands – wash your hands with soap often and use antibacterial cream before eating for maximum safety.
Bottled or filtered water – Unless you enjoy playing Russian Roulette never drink tap water in developing countries. That said, it really sucks to contribute any more plastic waste into the ecosystem of whatever country you are visiting, so if your hotel or hostel has a water refilling station be a responsible traveler and use it or travel with a water bottle with a filtration system.
Is Street Food in Thailand Safe? – In a word….maybe. Eat only food made to order. Street food in Thailand often looks and smells amazing, and is usually pretty safe to eat. However, you want to avoid anything that looks like its been laying out for awhile, especially in the sun. Stick with bubbling boiling soups, freshly made Pad Thai, and meat that has been grilled before your eyes.
Food Poisoning Recovery – Hydrate
If you are experiencing diarrhea or vomiting you need to make sure you re-hydrate properly. If you are not doing a great job holding water in, go to the nearest pharmacy and pick up Oral Re-hydration packets like the one pictured above.
They are the mana of the gods in these situations. If you are suffering from food poisoning in Thailand you NEED these packets. They should cost you no more than 5 baht. Use up to 5 a day, really.
Once Food Poisoned – Seek Medical Treatment If….
If your symptoms of food poisoning are “limited to” vomiting and loose frequent stools avoid hospitals in Thailand unless you feel you are in immediate need of aid, and instead seek out an English speaking doctor (Google is your best friend for that). We learned this the hard way after visiting the hospital and getting nothing out of it but a large bill. Clinics are often cheaper, more attentive, and it’s always good to have an attentive doctor you can communicate with.
That’s not to say that your experience at a hospital won’t go better than ours, but it’s best to remember that hospitals tend to be for emergencies, and your food poisoning, while seemingly dire and world shattering, is not probably not life threatening. You are one in a hundred tourists with the same symptoms, sadly.
We were lucky enough to find a great private doctor in Chiang Mai (see the comments below for her info) who took us in, spoke with us for 20 minutes after running tests and taking samples, and told us what each and every drug she prescribed did and why she recommended taking them.
Be on the look out for blood in vomit and stool and for high fevers. If you exhibit any of these symptoms seek out immediate medical care. In a hospital. Immediately. Blood in vomit or stools or/and a fever over 101 Celsius is nothing to be trifled with. So while we don’t mean to be alarmist it is best to get immediate professional care.
If you are unfortunate enough to have to seek medical treatment, travel insurance will be your best friend. We recommend World Nomads. Click here for a quote, it takes less than a minute.
Recovering From Food Poisoning – Rest
If you are food poisoned your body will spend a LOT of energy trying to get rid of whatever is making you puke and vomit. So you will need rest to recover .
Get plenty of it. This should be obvious but sometimes its hard to admit temporary defeat. Don’t be afraid to miss out on a couple of days of activities as a result. You need to let your body recover.
When Suffering From Food Poisoning While Traveling – Upgrade Your Accommodations
Speaking of rest, that might be a bit challenging if you’re staying in a dorm room with a shared bathroom when you get food poisoned. When we were both struck with food poisoning at the same time, we were lucky enough to have access to a private toilet and soft and cozy beds to recover in. This really helped us recover.
If you’re not fortunate enough to be in that situation, we highly recommend you upgrade to a nice hotel room or private hostel room to recover in. Because really, what’s worse than running full speed to the toilet only to find that it’s occupied? Also, you’re in Thailand! Take advantage of the fact that you can get a nice hotel room for only a fraction of the cost you would pay at home.
Recovery From Food Poisoning – Restricted Diet
The good news is that in most cases, food poisoning lasts no more than two to three days. You will be your old non puking self soon enough!
Ease your digestive system back into solid foods by eating simple, starchy snacks. Stay away from foods that are high in fat, sugar, or spice. When traveling, it can be difficult to find foods that are appetizing after a few days of illness. Instead of going to a restaurant, hit up a grocery store and invest in bread, cereal and other foods that will sit comfortably in your tummy.
The recommended diet for recovery is called the BRAT diet. BRAT is an acronym that simply means bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. Bananas five you potassium, rice fills you with starch, apples are nutritious and relatively easy to digest, and toast won’t offend your stomach while soaking up liquids that might make your poo watery and super soft.
Make sure you eat even if you feel no appetite, you need every bit of strength to get back on your feet. Do not drink coffee or caffeinated beverages, alcohol, or soda loaded with sugar.
Get better soon!
You are not alone. Don’t be afraid to ask fellow travelers or locals for help if you find yourself suffering from food poisoning while traveling, whether it is in Thailand or anywhere else. And if you are ever sick on the road and feel alone shoot us an e-mail 🙂 We will do our best to help you out.
Feel better soon!