Getting sick can ruin a nice trip to a foreign country. After all, you didn’t travel all that way to get stuck in your room visiting the bathroom and being tortured by your stomach. The water you drink and the food you eat while traveling should be safe to avoid contracting gastrointestinal infections.
There are three kinds of pathogens that cause water-borne diseases:
- Protozoa like Giardia
- Bacteria like salmonella, E. Coli, and Cholera
- Viruses like rotavirus, some Hepatitis strains, and polio.
When you visit a foreign country, you may notice the locals drinking tap water or water from any other source you would consider unsafe and staying healthy. If you did the same, you would be putting yourself at risk.
The explanation behind this is the fact that their immune systems have adapted to the microbes in their local water sources and yours is still vulnerable. It is similar to vaccination; you introduce a pathogen (weakened in this case) to your system and the body builds up a defense against the pathogen protecting you in future attacks.
In addition to disease-causing pathogens and chemical pollutants can be problematic when you drink water in foreign lands.
Which Countries Pose A Greater Risk?
According to the Center for Disease Control, statistics indicate that developing countries pose a greater risk of having unsafe water to drink than developed ones. If you are traveling to countries that have an underdeveloped infrastructure, chances of the water being unsafe to drink straight from the tap are high.
These countries are generally found in:
- Most of Africa
- Some parts of Central and South America
- A significant chunk of Asia
Developed countries like Australia, Japan, New Zealand, those in Western and Northern Europe, North America, etc. have safe drinking water.
Although developing nations are more susceptible to this problem, do not assume that all industrialized countries have universally safe water. There have been outbreaks of waterborne diseases in the US and Russia in the past.
What About Hard Water?
An important water safety aspect that tends to go unnoticed but that still plays an important role is water hardness. Hard water contains high levels of Calcium, Magnesium, Aluminum, Zinc, Iron, Manganese, and other elements. Water that comes into contact with the ground is generally harder.
What if the water is uncontaminated and free of contamination? Should you take it? Although your body can benefit from calcium and magnesium present in hard water, other elements have been known to aggravate certain illnesses. Diabetes, Cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Cardiovascular disease can worsen if you drink hard water.
If you are accustomed to drinking hard water at home, you should still be cautious with it in a foreign country. The problem with it is that it may contain high levels of harmful mineral ions. Therefore, soften hard water to mitigate the risks and be on the safe side.
What You Should NOT Do
If you travel to a poor country, there are a few things you should avoid to keep yourself healthy. Avoid the following practices to stay safe:
1. Do not drink Tap Water
If you can, do not drink water straight from the tap. Even though the local governments will assure you that the water is chlorinated, do not drink it directly. As mentioned earlier, there may be pathogens that the natives have already gotten used to but that may still affect your foreign immune system.
Tap water may also contain minerals that can affect your body negatively. For instance, fluoride-rich water can ruin your teeth.
2. Do not drink Water stored in Open Containers
Like tap water, water stored in exposed containers is not safe for drinking. Even when your hosts drink it without incurring any harm, you should stay away from it. Exposed water is an easy target for disease-causing pathogens.
3. Do not use ice from unknown sources
When water is frozen, living organisms don’t die. They only become dormant. When it is reheated to room temperature they become active once more. It’s the reason why frozen foods spoil quickly if they stay out in the open for long. If you want to have your drink on the rocks, use ice from a reliable source.
4. Don’t rinse your utensils in tap water
Avoid rinsing your utensils in tap water. Use safer sources instead.
5. Avoid drinking shower water
If the temptation to drink water comes at you while you take a shower, fight it. You may have cultivated a habit of drinking some water from the shower at home, but it can be dangerous if you do it in a foreign place.
6. Do not brush your teeth with tap water
Although you may convince yourself that you won’t swallow, don’t use tap water to brush. You are putting yourself at risk because all it takes is for a few drops to accidentally get into your body.
7. Avoid Fountain Drinks
Although not always, they are probably made from a juice concentrate mixed with unsafe water. They are not worth the risk.
8. Do not Consume Fresh fruits washed with unsafe water
Avoid fresh salads and fruits that have been cleaned up using an unknown water source. They may have been washed with tap water and are to be avoided.
What You Should Do
As we mentioned earlier on, safe drinking water is free of chemical pollutants, excess minerals, and pathogens. The practices you should adopt are all aimed at avoiding water that has been compromised by one of these three agents.
1. Purify your water
Filter the water to get rid of particulate pollutants. After filtration, use your preferred purification method to deal with the pathogens.
Iodine and chlorine capsules kill pathogens with the exception of protozoa like Cryptosporidium. For a pregnant woman, however, these agents can negatively impact the pregnancy and are not the best purifiers in the long term.
Remember to use a water softener if the water is hard to eliminate the undesirable minerals.
2. Drink bottled water and Eat canned/enclosed Foods
Bottled water that has an unbroken seal is your safest source of drinking water in an unpredictable environment. To avoid eating food that has been cleaned with unsafe water, eat fruits that are enclosed such as bananas and oranges. Stay away from the leafy vegetables and salads. Canned food is your best source of clean food.
3. Boil water
If you don’t have access to bottled water, boil your drinking water. Boiled water is also good enough for washing utensils, making ice, and brushing your teeth.
If you are staying in a big hotel during your trip, it most likely has safe drinking water in the taps. Even then, ask the concierge whether the water is safe for drinking and if it isn’t, learn about the alternatives. Next time you travel to a developing country, reputable hotels tend to have safe drinking water.
If you are going to live in a remote village, the conditions are more taxing and you will have to exercise greater caution when you seek drinking water.
If you are staying in a foreign developing country for a while, get your immune system used to local pathogens. If the natives are drinking directly from the tap without feeling ill and there are no known outbreaks, introduce the tap water to your body gradually to allow it to adapt to the local microbes.