IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers| IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers|
Photo By: Thommen Jose

Food and water safety

All too often, travellers abruptly find themselves suffering from a gastrointestinal infection. This condition occurs so regularly that it merits its own name: Travellers' Diarrhea. The culprits are bacteria, protozoa, viruses, and toxins that are transmitted through contaminated food and water, and poor hand hygiene practices.

Food and water-borne illnesses can occur in any country. When we are travelling, we are more likely to be unfamiliar with our food – we won’t always know where it came from, how it was prepared, or who handled it. Some of us are also more inclined to take risks by trying local delicacies and eating from various food vendors. You can prevent gastrointestinal infections when you know the risks, make safe choices, and practice good hygiene. The golden rule is: Boil it, Cook it, Peel it, or Forget it!

Download the full Food and Water Safety factsheet here: Food and Water Safety PDF

Drinking water safety

Always exercise caution with your drinking water. In areas where hygiene and sanitation are challenging to maintain, taking precautions with drinking water is essential.

Is the tap water safe?

Tap water quality and access to clean drinking water varies from region to region. The safety of the drinking water at your destination depends on context-specific factors such as the local supply and distribution system as well as the monitoring and enforcement of water quality standards.

Water quality can be affected by:

  • Lack of safe water storage
  • Old pipes or water treatment systems
  • Poor sanitation infrastructure
  • Agricultural run-off
  • Chemical pollutants
  • Human or animal waste
  • Weather-related events such as flooding

Even slight changes in water composition can cause Traveller’s Diarrhea. For example, tap water at your destination will have no ill effect on the local population, but due to different treatment standards there may be higher concentrations or unfamiliar strains of E.coli bacteria present. This can cause diarrhea since you do not develop immunity during short-term exposure.

How to prevent water-borne illnesses

Boil your water

If you are unsure about the tap water quality at your destination, bring the water to a rolling boil. Boiling your water destroys pathogens that can cause gastrointestinal infections such as E. coli, Giardia, and Cryptosporidium. Let your water cool in a covered container overnight and pour it into your reusable water bottle before heading out for the day.

Treated water

Water disinfection methods such as filtration, ultraviolet (UV) light and chemical disinfection can be used if there is no heating source to boil water. To learn about different treatment methods, see Drinking Water Safety

Bottled water

Bottled water is another option. However, bottles may be outdated or tampered with. Bottled water is also a large contributor to pollution and contributes to the water crisis. If you do purchase bottled water, do so from a reputable source and check that the bottle cap is properly sealed.

Food safety

Always exercise caution when eating high risk foods. Reduce your risk of illness by practicing food safety and following good hand hygiene practices at your destination.

How food becomes contaminated

Exposure to contaminated food is a common source of gastrointestinal illnesses. Before we eat our food, it encounters growers, processors, storage facilities, retailers, and food handlers that can introduce pathogens such as e. coli, Clostridium botulinum, and salmonella. Contamination can also occur through:

  • Washing food with untreated water
  • Cross-contamination of raw and cooked items
  • Improper cooking, storage, and refrigeration
  • Unsanitary cooking tools and utensils
  • Poor hand hygiene

How to prevent food-borne illnesses

High risk foods

Due to increased risk of contamination, travellers should practice caution with the following foods:

  • Undercooked or raw meat, poultry, seafood, fish, and eggs
  • Unpeeled fruits, vegetables and leafy greens
  • Unpasteurized dairy products
  • Foods that have been unrefrigerated or uncovered for a long time such as buffets

Furthermore, it’s not just about what you eat, it’s also important to consider where you eat. It’s not always easy to know if a restaurant or food vendor follows proper food handling and hygienic practices such as properly cleaning cutting boards and utensils, regularly washing their hands, or correctly refrigerating food. Avoid restaurants and food vendors that appear unclean or that don’t have many customers.

Hand hygiene

Hand washing is key to preventing gastrointestinal infections. Inadvertently ingesting fecal matter, protozoa eggs, bacteria or viruses by touching the mouth with dirty or improperly washed hands is a common source of illness. Always ensure that you wash your hands thoroughly before handling food and after using the bathroom.

More information

See the following resources for more information on food and water safety:

Last reviewed and updated: December 11, 2020.

Photo 1 by Karl-Erik Benion, FreeImages.

Photo 2 by Ed Gregory, Stockpic

Travel Health Journal