You’re mid-walking tour, tangled in the markets of Delhi and disoriented by unfamiliar smells of spices and incense.
Rahul, your local guide, is explaining something when your stomach lurches. Uh-oh.
Fresh hot sweat prickles at your hairline as your eyes dart around the space, frantically searching for a place of relief. Your panic heightens when you realise you’ve got about T minus 60 seconds before the place is gonna blow…
Ah yes. The all-too familiar story of our friend Travellers’ Diarrhea and her spontaneous visits. In India, she goes by ‘Delhi Belly’ and usually shows up at the least opportune time (think boarding a 13-hour overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi or at the entrance to the Taj Mahal).
However, don’t let the fear of getting sick stop you from travelling to certain destinations. Delhi Belly can be easily avoided if you’re aware of the risks and take care of yourself.
Here’s my list of six things to look out for so you can stay healthy in India.
1. Make sure you wash your hands
Keeping your hands clean is the Golden Rule of travelling. It’s easy to remember to clean your hands before a meal as everyone in your tour will whip out their hand sanitiser at the table. Plus, there may not always be cutlery as Indians traditionally eat with their hands (something you should try, it’s super fun!).
But beware of times in between main meals. To keep Delhi Belly at bay avoid touching your face or anything that’s going in your mouth until you’ve cleaned your hands. Soap and water is best, because it removes dirt, but wet wipes are great when a sink isn’t available. Follow up with hand sanitiser and you’ll be fine. I’d also suggest trimming your nails short and regularly removing dirt.
2. Make that a soda, and hold the ice
Ingesting Indian tap water is like shouting “DELHI BELLY COME AT ME!”. It’s unsafe to drink, so stick to bottled or filtered water. Filter bottles and water purification tablets are great options for avoiding single-use plastic, just be sure to research the most effective products.
If you have to buy plastic bottled water, check the seal is intact. Some vendors have been known to refill bottles with tap water before gluing the lid back on. Listen out for the cracking of the seal and let your leader know immediately if it’s faulty.
Re-sealing doesn’t work for fizzy drinks, so soda water is a great choice for staying hydrated. Always skip the ice though – it’s usually made from tap water.
3. Danger in the bathroom
For me, it goes like this:
Happily brushing teeth. Thinks about using filtered water to rinse mouth/brush. Starts day dreaming. Turns tap on. Spits. Rinses mouth with tap water.
I find this the easiest place to slip up because it is a habit, so be extra careful. This also applies to those who shower with their mouth open. Zip it kid.
4. Hot and fresh
Indian food is incredible and your local leader will point you towards the tastiest. Don’t be scared to try new things. However, follow these do’s and don’ts to ensure the food stays IN your belly.
- Eat at busy spots full of locals. The food is usually delicious and fresh.
- Heat kills germs, so choose hot food.
- Embrace street food, but ask your leader for recommendations.
- Go vegetarian sometimes.
- Beware of buffets as dishes can be left unrefrigerated for too long.
- Avoid salad as it’s usually rinsed in tap water.
- Don’t eat cut fruit. Instead, purchase fruit with a peel (like oranges or bananas) and peel it yourself.
- Avoid Western food (unless you’ve read good reviews). It may not be as good quality as local food.
- Try not to overeat, particularly at the start. Your body needs time to adjust!
5. Give your gut a pro-biotic boost
Pro-biotics are good bacteria that help your body fight illness and keep you healthy. The theory is that the healthier your gut pre-trip, the better equipped it is to deal with new bacteria during your trip.
Yogurt, kombucha and other fermented foods are rich in this gut-strengthening bacteria, but your pharmacy will also sell a supplement version. Do some research and check with your doctor to see what might work best for you. Pro-biotics need time to work, so incorporate them as early as you can pre-trip.
6. What to do if you DO get sick
Fact is, many people experience an upset tummy when travelling, thanks to time-difference, a change in climate and unfamiliar food. You could follow all my suggestions and still feel a bit off.
If feeling a bit off-colour develops into full-blown Delhi Belly and you’re spending the night on the toilet, you’ll want to have some medication like Imodium on hand to slow things down. Stay hydrated and carry tissues and change when exploring (you’ll need to pay for some public toilets).
If problems persist, tell your leader and see a doctor. If you know you are prone to an upset stomach, you should visit the doctor before your trip to discuss potential coping strategies.
So, take these few simple precautions and your trip to India will be full of amazing food and memories, NONE of which involve a toilet!
Do you want to experience the colours, sights and smells of India? Join a small group tour with Intrepid.
Hero image by Ben Mac.