10 health tips for travelling in the tropics

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At this time of year, when the frigid winds are whipping our faces here in the frozen north, many of us fly off to places like Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. However, the downside of escaping to hot places is the chance you’ll get sick. So I thought I’d share my 10 health tips for travelling in the tropics.

I’ve travelled extensively in southern countries without suffering anything more serious than the odd case of Montezuma’s revenge or Delhi belly. That’s partly good luck, but it ‘s also thanks to a number of smart health rules I’ve learned over the years.

Here they are: my 10 health tips for travelling in the tropics.

Don’t drink the water

This is the cardinal rule for tropical travel. Unless I’m in a big, modern city like Singapore, I don’t put the tap water in my mouth, even if the locals say it’s safe. In fact, in places like Mexico, I keep my mouth shut in the shower (even if I feel like singing).Turkish coffee

The water in tropical places can have all sorts of things in it that your stomach isn’t used to, and it can and will give you diarrhea, or something worse. For drinking, and even for brushing my teeth, I stick to bottled water, which is usually cheap and available: a lot of hotels supply it with the room.  I also avoid mixed drinks that look like they’re made with water.

But do stay hydrated

That said, do keep drinking,. You can lose a lot of moisture just walking around when the temperatures are 30 Celsius (90 Fahrenheit), and it can take a while before you notice it.

If your urine starts to look dark, you’re drying out. If you stop urinating, you’re officially dehydrated, and it can make you pretty sick. And don’t try to ward off dehydration by downing lots of cervezas or Singapore slings — drinking alcohol actually hurts the cause, rather than helping.

Ease into it

It’s tempting to dive into the local food as soon as you get in from the airport. But take it easy: your stomach needs some time to adjust, especially if you’ve spent a long day traipsing through airports and eating airline food. That goes double if you’ve crossed a bunch of time zones. Eat light and stay with familiar foods for the first day or two, until your system has stabilized and your stomach is ready for exotic fare.

Wash your hands

One of the big ways you get sick when you travel is by touching things and then putting your hands on your face or lips. So wash your hands as often as you can, Chocolate cafeand always before you eat.

Some restaurants have a sink for that purpose, but better to carry some hand sanitizer or a pack of wet wipes in your day bag. These are also good for wiping down things in your hotel room that might not have been properly cleaned. The biggest suspect: the TV remote.

 Be careful with street food

My original title for this point was “avoid street food”, but I know a lot of veteran travellers consider street meat the best thing going. Personally, I look at it with suspicion, especially when there’s meat involved and the weather is hot. There’s just too much opportunity for bacteria to grow. I also avoid cut fruit like the stuff they’re selling in the photo at top, since the utensils they use can spread contamination.

If you must indulge, I’ll just say stick to safer things like empanadas or corn on the cob. And if you don’t, choose a food cart that looks clean and where the food is cooked fresh, right in front of you. Then, make sure the cook isn’t handling money with his or her bare hands — that’s a good way to contaminate your food.

Don’t be a chicken

While you should be careful, don’t be afraid to try the local food — it’s part of the culture, and you don’t really experience a country without tasting its cuisine. If you’re nervous, try a city tour that includes lunch at an authentic restaurant, and ask the guide if he or she knows some good places to eat.Scorpions on a stick

Once you’ve been around for a while, you can go looking for the undiscovered restaurant gems. And once in a while, try something wild, like the scorpions I ate in Beijing — they didn’t taste great, but they make a good story.

Go easy on the sun

You go to the tropics for the sunshine, but too much of a good thing is never a good idea. Don’t spend the whole day on the beach as soon as you arrive. An hour or so is lots for the first day, especially if you’ve arrived from the north with skin as white as snow.

Wear sunscreen and a hat, and if you’re going to spend a long time in or on the water, wear a t-shirt: the water reflects the sunlight, so you can get burned from several directions at the same time. Another good tip: if you’re out sightseeing, be aware of where the shade is, and walk in it.  That way you’ll build up a tan instead of a burn.

Take the right drugs

If you’re spending a week at a beach resort or in a major city, you’ll probably be fine with whatever drugs you need at home.  However, if you’re going to do some real travelling in tropical countries, you need to find out what diseases are there, and how to avoid getting them. Malaria is the biggest threat, but there are others, like typhoid, hepatitis, dengue fever, and in some parts of Africa, yellow fever.

Visit a travel clinic to get whatever shots and medications you need, and do it early: some inoculations take two shots, and some can cause flu-like symptoms. You’ll want to get over those before you start your trip. As well, some malaria medications must be started before you travel to the malaria-affected area.

To defend against travellers’ diarrhea, my colleague Marie-France, of Big Travel Nut, swears by DUKORAL, an oral vaccine that you take before you travel: it provides protection from problems caused by both E. coli and cholera.

Beware the bugs

It’s great to be able to walk around in shorts, but if you’re going out into the woods and fields, wear long pants. There are a lot of critters that live in the bushes and Lamanai Belize junglelong grass, and they love to feast on tourists.

Bring some bug spray, and if there are a lot of bugs around, tuck your pants into your socks so they can’t get at your ankles. Once, in Nicaragua, some fleas gave me so many bites around the ankles that they fused into one continuous, itchy ring.

Don’t overdo it

One of the things that can make you sick when you’re travelling is just getting worn down. I once spent three weeks in India and only got sick once — after I spent a rocky night on a bus and then ate a huge breakfast, with a big pot of coffee. Partying every night can leave you worn out and vulnerable, too. Have fun, but take a break now and then, and don’t go overboard with the food or the booze.

Those are my 10 health tips for travelling in the tropics. You might have your own — if you do, please leave a comment and share them with us.

And while some of the health threats I’ve talked about may sound scary, don’t let them stop you from going. Remember, nowhere on earth is perfectly safe. You can get sick just staying at home — every year my city is bombarded with reminders to run out and get our flu shots.

Take some simple precautions like these ones, and you’ll likely be fine. And if you do catch something, it will likely be no more serious than travellers’ diarrhea — uncomfortable, but certainly not worth missing a great time. So go travel to the tropics. But be careful out there.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

6 Comments

  1. hi Paul , that is excellent advice to stay healthy while travelling . especially the one about not drinking the water in Mexico I love the country but the water is not kind to me. I made the mistake once or twice of thinking just a little bit of tap water couldn’t hurt. But even the small amount that I used to brush my teeth one time down and didn’t swallow in Acapulco made me very very sick. Three or four times that I have been down there I have gotten sick enough to need to pay a visit to a doctor and the diagnoses was always the same. Don’t drink the water . even Mexicans don’t drink it anymore. they buy bottled water.

    • Amen, Dennis. I don’t know if Mexico is ever going to get a water treatment system that makes it safe for gringos, but I don’t think we should hold our breath. You’re right — even a small amount of water can take your digestive system by storm. I try to keep a bottle in the bathroom just so I’m not tempted to use tap water for tooth brushing.

  2. Thanks for the tips Paul. Most travelers know about the water and most of us are careful about certain especially raw foods – but “Easy on the Sun” is not one that we might remember when coming from the frozen north until it’s a little too late. Sun burn can ruin a great vacation and be harmful long term. I like that bug spray idea too. It doesn’t happen often but I know a few fellow travelers (and myself) who’ve have run-ins with everything from spiders to flies to mosquitos to “something.” An unasked for introduction to a pest can ruin a vacation and the effects can linger for a long time. And most of the time we never even see the little “bugger” who bites us! Please pass the Skin-So-Soft!

    • Thanks, Roberta. I see a lot of people fly into a sun destination with lily white skin and head straight for the beach. The next day I see them looking red as lobsters — so bad in every way. We northerners can hardly appreciate how strong the sun can be in tropical countries, and it’s easy to do something like going snorkelling without noticing that our backs are exposed to the sun all afternoon. I once made that mistake, and ended up sleeping on my stomach for about a week.

  3. I would agree with most of the things you said in the post. I have lived in Thailand for the last year and I have also travelled extensively in South East Asia. I always brush my teeth with tap water, unless I am in a remote place, or in a village, or in a really poor country, like Myanmar.
    Also, street meat and street food are the best. Of course, you need to be careful. The worst season to buy meat from a street stall in the rainy season, which I know from the locals in Thailand. My way of buying the meat is to get it straight from the grill/burner, and not the one that has already been fried or grilled and is put aside waiting for god knows how long. If you get it straight from the fire you should be alright. I also think that every traveller should go through stomach problems. It makes you immune and it is a sort of baptism.
    Jo (The Blonde) recently posted…Travelog – a brand new site that will help you to plan your trip – reviewMy Profile

    • Thanks for commenting, Jo. I agree that the longer you travel in a region, the more immunity you build up to the local microbes, so a little exposure to the local water doesn’t hurt. But I still think for the first while, it’s better to err on the side of safety.

      As for getting sick to build up immunity: it does tend to happen, but I’m happier if I can avoid it. As Dennis commented below, it can be serious in some cases — not to mention ruining your vacation if you’re only there a short time.

      Good tip about the street meat. Don’t do it in rainy season — I’ll remember that.

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