Dealing with "Delhi Belly": avoiding stomach problems on the road

By John Walton, April 2 2013
Dealing with

Many business travellers fall foul of an upset stomach -- or worse, the dreaded, hard to pin down gastro bug -- when overseas, travelling in unfamiliar places with different hygiene standards. We certainly have in our time, despite our best efforts to avoid "Pharoah's Revenge" or "Delhi Belly".

But what can you do to minimise your chances of falling ill when you're travelling?

Many precautions you take will depend on how cast-iron your stomach is and how confident you feel about it. If you're prone to an upset tum back home, you might want to take more precautions when abroad than other travellers.

Check your vaccinations before you go

An upset stomach can sometimes be a sign of something worse. To help narrow down what's wrong -- and, frankly, to avoid a much more dangerous illness -- make sure your vaccinations and any booster jabs are up to date for the region you're heading to on business.

First, wash your hands

Washing your hands is the number one way to avoid viral and bacterial infections, and quite frankly it's likely to do more to keep you well than anything else. Use hot water and soap, rubbing vigorously, for as long as it takes to sing your ABCs twice through. (You don't actually have to sing.) Alcohol hand rubs can work against some nasties, but they're not 100 percent effective. 

Avoid tap water and ice

In a hot climate, iced drinks are a blessed relief. But water is often unsafe to drink -- and, thus, so is the ice, unless you know that it's been made with sterilised water.

We tend to draw the line at brushing our teeth with bottled water -- and we've not fallen sick as a result -- but your personal hassle/caution line may be different.

Pick hot food served directly to you

Avoid refrigerated food or anything that isn't piping hot if you can. Lukewarm buffet food is a recipe for disaster.

Choose food that's cooked individually over something from a pot if you can -- it's more likely that a dish like meat or fish served with a sauce has been cooked from fresh rather than ladled out of a bowl cooked earlier.

Skip room service

We often avoid room service, even in upmarket hotels, in areas where the freshness of food is a question. It's harder to judge whether the food is good since you can't watch other plates go past, and the time (and the handling) between the food being cooked and it arriving on your plate can be longer than you'd like.

Don't be afraid to experiment with local food

Don't just stick to Western-style food -- local cuisine is often fresher and less likely to cause problems (unless you have a seriously sensitive stomach). Follow the crowds of local people to a restaurant and you'll rarely go wrong.

Bring meds with you just in case

Preparation is the key here. There's no way you want to be hunting around for the local version of common medications in a foreign language right as you're falling ill.

It's common sense to pop a pack of loperamide tablets (sold as Imodium and other brands) in your case wherever you travel. It's always part of our travel medicine kit. But beware -- sometimes it's better to skip it rather than use it. Ask your pharmacist, nurse or doctor for advice.

Rehydration salts are also a good idea if you're heading somewhere you're a bit worried about -- nip into a pharmacy before you go and ask for some, then chuck the box in your suitcase. Worst case is that you bring them home with you and look super-prepared when you pass them on to a friend or colleague.

(If you really need it, you can make your own rehydration solution by adding a teaspoon of salt and six teaspoons of sugar to a litre of water -- it'll work, but it won't taste as good as the commercially prepared stuff.)

If you're seriously worried, consider talking to your doctor about bringing a wide-spectrum antibiotic with you. We'll admit, we've never done this, but some people swear by it.

Get someone to check on you if you fall ill

If you're overseas and you fall foul of a stomach bug, make sure that someone checks on you every few hours if you've taken to your hotel bed.

If you've picked up something worse than a mild dose of gastro, you want someone making sure that you're still conscious, no matter how rotten you feel, and calling a doctor if you don't improve.

For more tips, check out the DFAT Smartraveller advice on health while travelling.

Want the very latest news and even more travel tips? Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter. We're @AusBT.

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

10 Mar 2011

Total posts 527

I know someone who once took their own packets of instant noodles and tins of tuna when they travelled to a stomach-risky country and ate only those for the week that she was there!

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 666

Yeah, I know people who travel with cases full of granola bars, but that would rather defeat much of the joy of travelling for me!

An apt piece in light of recent circumstances. As you know when you get one of thoes stomach bugs you run the risk of a... you run a real risk..

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 666

Indeed! It's a real nightmare.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 783

"Travelan" tablets - two, three times a day before meals. Perfect. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

20 Mar 2012

Total posts 116

thanks tronixstuff - I had a look at the travelan website and will be investing in these and keeping them in my travel case. much appreciated!

17 May 2012

Total posts 1

Alcohol handrubs are more effective than handwashing; however, you may run out of handrub and it is not effective on visibly soiled hands. 

07 Oct 2012

Total posts 1250

Good advice!

British AIrways

08 Feb 2011

Total posts 22

We have taken Dukoral (cholera vaccine) that seem to have helped us to avoid any problems during some extensive travelling -- or we've been just lucky.  Not a medical expert but I believe it gives some protection to certain types of "Delhi Belly".


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

03 Apr 2013

Total posts 2

As a medical professional, I can say that Dukoral does work on certain types of bacteria, particularly certain types of E.coli that are found in food poisoning. It's best to discuss this with your doctor how it fits you and not buy this outright.

What I do not suggest and vouch for, is to take a prophylactic wide-spectrum antibiotic as stated in the article. This not only compounds the rise of antibiotic resistance for bugs that they don't cover, but may even give you a bout of diarrhoea themselves.

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