Ask Gadling: What do you do when you get food poisoning while traveling?

No one wants to get sick while traveling. Unfortunately, sick happens – and it’s usually in the form of bad food caused by bad bacteria from things you just don’t want to know about. Food poisoning is no laughing matter, especially when you’re traveling, and while it usually when you least expect it the good news is you can prevent it (and usually cure it) with a few simple steps.

Most of the time, food poisoning is mild and goes away after a few days, but anyone who has suffered through it will tell you it’s miserable – and we agree. All you can do is wait for your body to rid itself of the germs causing the illness. However, food poisoning creeps up when you least expect it – would you know what to do if you suddenly get ill in a foreign country, or on a flight? While we can’t guarantee you won’t get sick while traveling, we can help you ease the pain with a few preventive measures, and some tips to quick healing if the worst should happen.

Disclaimer: We’re not doctors at Gadling; we’re seasoned travelers who have seen our way through some of the best – and worst – travel situations. The information in this article can offer tips on what to do if you get food poisoning (or something similar) while traveling, but should in no way replace the care you would receive from a medical professional. Call your doctor immediately if you get sick on the road.

[Photo from Flickr/ChicagoGeek]

What to do if you get food poisoning while traveling

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If you’ve had food poisoning you’re pretty well aware of how bad it can be – and we don’t need to go into details. The bottom line: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Your body loses a lot of water and fluid when you’re sick with food poisoning and the best thing you can do is replenish with water and/or sports drinks. Stay away from sodas and fruit juices – there are too many sugars in those drinks and it will have the reverse effect on your body.

Antibiotics are often used to treat food poisoning but can only be used if directed from your doctor. Some travelers do carry an antibiotic with them for this exact reason, but it’s best to check with your doctor before taking anything.

If you become seriously ill while traveling, your country’s embassy or consulate can help you find medical care. The CDC offers the following rules of advice for travelers who become sick on the road:
  • Travelers’ diarrhea is the most common illness when traveling. It typically starts abruptly but it runs it course. Most doctors recommend trying to keep to your normal diet as much as possible. Try drinking clear liquids and watch for signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth and dark-colored urine. If possible, drink rehydration drinks to replace lost fluids and electrolytes.
  • The over-the-counter remedies like Pepto-Bismol and Imodium can sometimes prevent traveler’s diarrhea and ease the food poisoning pains. Follow the directions exactly.
  • Most cases of travelers’ diarrhea resolve within 1 to 3 days without medical treatment. See a doctor if diarrhea or vomiting doesn’t subside or you have a high fever.
  • For a complete list of embassies and consulates, see the U.S. Department of State Web site at You can also get the contacts for local doctors and medical clinics.
What to do if you get food poisoning in flight

Getting sick at 35,000-feet is one of the worst feelings; getting food poisoning at 35,000-feet is even worse. I was on an 8-hour flight to Rome when two hours into the flight it hit me – whatever I ate was bad, very, very bad. It might have been something I ate prior to the flight, or it might have been the airplane food (which looked to have been left over from the very first commercial airline flight) – either way, this was not going to be a fun a flight. Then the turbulence happened, and it got worse. On the flip side, I learned first-hand what to do when you get sick in flight:

Immediately alert a flight attendant. No one wants to be sick in the 2×2 lavatory at the back of the plane, but when you’re sick – you’re sick. The FAA allows passengers to be in the bathroom for 15 minutes before the flight attendants are allowed to come knocking. Mention your sick to a flight attendant and they’ll take care of you, including monitoring you in the bathroom to make sure you’re OK, and bend the 15-minute rule, if needed.

Water. Water. Water. NO Soda or fruit juice – too much sugar counteracts the rehydration.

Doctors recommend trying to eat normally as soon as possible, so ask the flight attendant for some crackers or pretzels.

If you’re stuck in your seat due to turbulence, there’s not much you can do but grab your air sickness bag and hope it doesn’t last long.

The bad news is that food poisoning takes a toll on your body, as does being up in the air. The good news is that once it makes its way through your system, it’s gone for good.

As soon as you land, stock up on sports drinks (Gatorade, Pedialyte, etc.) to try and regulate your body back to normal.

How can you prevent food poisoning?

While you can’t prevent what other people do, you can take steps to decrease your chances of getting food poisoning:
  • Wash your hands often and always before you touch food.
  • Don’t eat raw meat, poultry or fish if it’s not from a clean area. While raw food is a delicacy, in some parts of the world it’s not prepared according to standards. The basic rules apply here: if it doesn’t look right, don’t eat it.
  • Make sure that meat, chicken, fish, and eggs are fully cooked.
  • When in doubt, throw it out. If you are not sure if a food is safe, don’t eat it. This goes for our beloved “street meat” and off-the-cart food.
We hope you never get sick when traveling, but if you do, just remember to take it slow, give yourself time to rebound and drink plenty of water.

Gadling readers, we want to hear from you: Have you ever gotten food poisoning while traveling? What advice do you have for other travelers?

[Photo from Flickr/mr_t_77]