People who have had food poisoning know how uncomfortable an experience it can be. One minute you’re polishing off some leftovers you’ve had a little bit too long, the next you feel an unfamiliar gurgle in your stomach, and then you’re spending most of the night in the bathroom. It can happen to anyone, and (most of the time) there’s no way of knowing whether you’ve eaten tainted food until it’s already too late. Even worse, you could get food poisoning abroad on vacation. Not only are you spending your trip feeling under the weather, but if your case is bad enough, you’d have to go the hospital and rack up a potentially hefty medical bill.


Food poisoning is commonly defined as any illness or disease that results from eating contaminated food. That contamination can come in the form of bacteria, viruses, parasites, or any other toxins. Food can become contaminated at any point in the production process—during growing, harvesting, processing, storing, shipping, or preparing. A common cause is cross-contamination, the transfer of harmful organisms from one substance to another. Many times, contaminates are killed if the food has been cooked thoroughly. However, for raw food (like fruits and vegetables), the danger remains.

Foods Linked to Illnesses

There are several varieties of food that can cause food poisoning, especially related to preparation and storage.

  • Chicken, beef, pork, and turkey: A major cause of food poisoning is raw and undercooked meat. Make sure to thoroughly cook any meat before eating it. Use a cooking thermometer to make sure it has reached a safe internal temperature, which varies by the kind of meat. Refrigerate leftovers at 40°F (4.4°C) within two hours of preparation.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Raw fruits and vegetables may cause food poisoning from germs like Salmonella, E. Coli, and Listeria.
  • Raw milk, raw milk soft cheeses, and other raw milk products: Raw (unpasteurized) milk and products made from it, like soft cheeses, ice cream, and yogurt, can carry contaminants. Raw milk is made safe through pasteurization, which heats the liquid just long enough to kill germs.
  • Eggs: Raw and undercooked eggs can contain salmonella. Cook any foods containing eggs thoroughly.
  • Seafood and raw shellfish: Cook seafood to 145°F (62.7°C), and heat leftover seafood to 165°F (73.9°C). Raw and undercooked oysters can contain viruses and bacteria.
  • Sprouts: Most sprouts grow in warm, humid conditions, which are also ideal conditions for germs to grow. Eating raw or lightly cooked sprouts can lead to food poisoning.
  • Raw flour: Raw flour has undergone no treatment to kill germs. Any germs contained in raw flour are killed during cooking or baking.


Symptoms differ depending on the kind of germ you ingested, and they range from mild to severe. Some common food poisoning symptoms include an upset stomach, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and dehydration. Symptoms can occur hours or days after consuming contaminated food. More severe symptoms that would necessitate seeing a doctor include bloody stools or diarrhea, a high fever (temperature over 102°F or 38.9°C), frequent vomiting that prevents keeping liquids down, signs of dehydration, and diarrhea that lasts more than three days.

One common complication of food poisoning is dehydration. If you’re experiencing vomiting and diarrhea, an important method of food poisoning treatment is staying hydrated to help your body repair itself and flush out the contamination. Make sure to drink plenty of water, and possibly a sports drink to replace essential salts and minerals.

Types of Food Poisoning

There are many common types of food poisoning. Just a few of them include:

  • Staphylococcus aureus (Staph): Symptoms begin 30 minutes to 6 hours after exposure and include nausea, vomiting, and stomach cramps. Food sources include foods that are not cooked after handling, like sliced meat, puddings, pastries, and sandwiches.
  • Salmonella: Symptoms begin 6 hours to 6 days after exposure and include diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, and vomiting, Common food sources include raw or undercooked meat, eggs, unpasteurized milk, and raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Norovirus: Symptoms begin 12–48 hours after exposure and include diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting. Common food sources include contaminated food like leafy greens, fresh fruits, shellfish, and water.
  • Clostridium botulinum (Botulism): Symptoms begin 18–36 hours after exposure and include double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing or breathing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness and paralysis. Common food sources include improperly canned or fermented foods.
  • E. coli (Escherichia coli): Symptoms begin 3–4 days after exposure and include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (usually bloody), and vomiting. Common food sources include raw or undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized milk and juice, raw vegetables, raw sprouts, and contaminated water.

How to Avoid Food Poisoning Abroad

There are measures that you can take to prevent food poisoning while abroad. For example, many countries—including Mexico and Nepal —don’t have reliable sources of clean water. To avoid getting sick, your best options are bottled water, boiled water, or purification tablets. This doesn’t just apply to drinking, either. When possible, use bottled water when brushing your teeth and washing your face to keep unwanted germs from entering your system.

There are also ways to spot food to avoid when traveling overseas. Many urban areas offer a variety of street vendors and food carts. Look for the busy ones; don’t go to the only stall without a line on an otherwise busy street. That’s a bad sign. Similarly, look for food that’s still piping hot and steaming. Boiling hot food like stew, soup, and tea is kept at a high temperature and has a lower risk than cold or lukewarm food of carrying disease. Watch to see if they prepare your food fresh or if it’s been sitting out. And make sure to observe what kind of sanitary precautions the vendors use when preparing or serving your meal. Are they handling your food with tongs or bare hands? Are they using food coverings like foil or saran wrap? Are they using gloves and hair nets?

As long as you’re on vacation, you might as well seize the opportunity to do as the locals do. In a foreign country, local cuisine is more likely to be prepared well and safely than foreign food. French chefs probably have more experience cooking French cuisine than they do a hamburger and fries. If you’re in a landlocked country, steer clear of seafood. Half the battle of staying healthy is identifying in advance what not to eat when traveling abroad.

Food Poisoning and Travel Insurance

Before leaving on your trip, it’s a good idea in principle to purchase travel insurance and travel medical insurance to protect yourself against any unexpected accidents, injuries, or illnesses that might occur.

You may be wondering what medical conditions are not covered by travel insurance. Fortunately, most travel insurance policies include no specific exclusions for food poisoning. Most policies don’t mention it, and the ones that do make sure to state that it qualifies for coverage. Many of the Safe Travels plans state: “We will not pay for any Accidental Death, Dismemberment or Paralysis loss or injury that is caused by, or results from: disease or bacterial infection except for any bacterial infection resulting from an accidental external cut or wound or accidental ingestion of contaminated food.” In short, if you’re on vacation, and you try a new food that disagrees with your stomach, you might end up in the hospital, but you most likely won’t have to worry about covering the cost out of pocket, as coverage would be included as part of your travel insurance benefits.

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