Food poisoning in Thailand is a very common occurrence for travelers.
Food poisoning. Are there two words more dreaded by any traveler? Probably not. Food poisoning is a risk that every traveler should be aware of when exploring new lands and trying new foods.
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.
There are many ways we can introduce “bad bacteria” into your system. Drinking contaminated water, or eating spoiled meat, is not the 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.
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 Rehydration 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 mightly 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. You, too, will have survived food poisoning in Thailand.
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 on preventing food poisoning in Thailand, and minimizing your risk.
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.
Eat only food made to order – Street cart food often looks and smells amazing, and is usually pretty safe to eat, but 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.
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 often and use antibacterial cream before eating for maximum safety.
Bottled water – Unless you enjoy 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.
If you are experiencing diarrhea or vomiting you need to make sure you rehydrate properly. If you are not doing a great job holding water in, go to the nearest pharmacy and pick up Oral Rehydration packets like the one pictured above. They are the mana of the gods in these situations. They should cost you no more than 5 baht. Use up to 5 a day.
Avoid hospitals 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 a doctor you can communicate with.
We were lucky enough to find a great 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.
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.
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.
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 sick. 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.
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.
The good news is that in most cases, food poisoning lasts no more than two to three days.
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.
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. And if you are ever sick on the road and feel alone shoot us an e-mail 🙂
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