The Trip from Heck: Part 1

Traveling Gal hasn’t been so good lately about keeping up with that New Year’s resolution about more frequent posting, but dear readers, you are about to start getting a lot more. I’ve been traveling, and there’s so much to tell you about. But let’s start with the most memorable travel experiences I’ve had lately, my recent first-ever trip to Mexico and back, which will live forever in my memory as The Trip From Heck.

Meaning: not hell, but it felt like it at times. There was much that was good about the trip, but the clearest markers on the road there and back were a nasty bout of food poisoning, and a saga of lost luggage (not just mine, but also my sister’s).  From these I have gleaned some fun tales; travel misadventures of course make some of the best stories to tell about your trip. But I also learned a few useful lessons that others could profit from.

I’m saving the lost luggage saga for the next post. Food poisoning is enough for this one.

I’ve enjoyed intestinal challenges in quite a few settings over the years, but none caught me quite so much by surprise as the bout in Mexico. (There really isn’t a delicate way to write about this, so the queasy may want to wait for the post about lost bags.) Food poisoning may have consequences at either end, or both. This one made me develop a close and personal, though fortunately temporary, relationship with the toilet in my room, but not by sitting on it. If you get my meaning. From around 9:30 at night until 1:20 a.m., I had to make a precipitate rush to my new best pal about every 20 to 30 minutes. (In the interest of journalistic accuracy, I started noting the times in my little notebook, so for the sake of the curious: 9:00, 9:30, 10:00, 10:15, 10:45, 11:10, 11:40, 12:05, 12:25, 1:20.) At first I thought that it must have been the chilaquiles I’d so incautiously had for breakfast, but I later learned that many others came down with the same malady that night or next day—about half of those who had gathered for the wedding we were there for. So, group poisoning—we’d been eating dinners together for three days—but not everyone got sick.

Among those who did, my sister and brother-in-law reported that they lost 6 and 10 pounds, respectively, before recovering. So I have come to think of this as the Mexican quick weight-loss program. But don’t rush to Mexico for that reason. WeightWatchers is slower but much less traumatic and I recommend it as an alternative.

This is far from the first time I’ve contracted food poisoning while traveling or living abroad, even though I’m always pretty careful not to drink unboiled or unfiltered water and to avoid salads and raw stuff. I learned this the hard way during long residence in China, where I finally stopped eating any salads except those I made myself, and then gave up entirely after wearying of the half-hour lettuce-soaking in detergent solution routine. Fortunately, whenever I did get sick, the symptoms never lasted more than 24 hours, and usually less, although there were one or two occasions when I sometimes thought it would be the death of me.

My doctor, when I told him about the Mexican incident, said that if diarrhea wasn’t involved, it was probably a staph bacterial contamination of the food. But others had diarrhea. Wondering whether I might find some information that would help identify which of the many food items we all consumed had done us the dirty, I checked online and finally zeroed in on the Centers for Disease Control, which tabulates the incidence of “foodborne illnesses” in the US (Mexico is not their department). For further details, I also consulted the federal government’s joint agency web site on food safety, FoodSafety.gov.

Thanks to the CDC, I learned a lot about food poisoning, and also that there’s plenty of it going on up here north of the Rio Grande: as many as 48 million cases in the USA each year. But good luck to us in figuring out what played the dastard in this particular outbreak, or when we all got infected. You can get sick from many kinds  of bacteria, viruses, allergens, molds, or parasites, and the incubation periods for symptoms range from one hour to several days. You won’t ever know exactly what is/was making you sick unless you see a doctor and s/he orders laboratory tests. I was astounded to see how many potential culprits there are. The rogues’ gallery is well populated with characters like Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, E. coli (STEC 0157, STEC non-0157), Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio, Yersinia. (Some of those sound like exotic names for girls. But best not.) And those are just the ones they’re tracking through the collaborative food poisoning surveillance network, FoodNet.

However, more than nine-tenths of all cases are usually tracked to just five of the little nasties. You can read up on them by following the links I provide below. I’m including a time range after each so you can get a sense of how soon you’d get sick after being exposed to it.

  • One I’d never even heard of, called “Norovirus” (12-48 hours) seems to be responsible for more than half of all cases—and isn’t among those FoodNet tracks, even though it accounts for about a quarter of all hospitalizations for food poisoning;
  • Salmonella (12 to 72 hours; this is “nontyphoidal” Salmonella, which makes you wonder…);
  • Clostridium perfringens (6 to 24 hours);
  • Campylobacter spp. (2-5 days);
  • Staphylococcus aureus (1 to 6 hours).

Since you’ve probably heard a lot about them, too:

  • the E. coli varieties that cause illness (we have lots of other E. coli swimming around in us all the time, doing more helpful things) usually make you sick within 2 to 8 days, and
  • Listeria monocytogenes could produce symptoms in anywhere from 3 to 70 days. Listeriosis, the disease caused by Listeria, is especially dangerous; there are only about 1600 cases per year in the US, but it kills about 1/5 of its victims.

If all of this isn’t enough to put you off your feed, let me add that there seems hardly to be any food or drink out there that may not harbor at least one of these tiny horrors. Even cantaloupe and celery could cause problems. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to improve the odds in your favor:

  • Wash your hands with soap often; wash your hands, wash your hands, and then wash your hands again!
  • Don’t eat undercooked poultry, ground meat, or shellfish.
  • Don’t drink unboiled or unbottled water, or even use it for brushing your teeth.
  • Don’t drink unpasteurized milk or fruit juices.
  • If you’re in a location where you doubt the sanitary conditions, avoid raw vegetables or raw fruits that have already been cut open. (This also means: no lettuce or raw tomatoes in sandwiches.)

If someone else is preparing your food (e.g., in a restaurant), good luck. A lot of these illnesses are caused by food workers who don’t wash their hands, or who prepare food while they’re sick. But you can improve your chances by at least making sure that there’s soap and hot water in the restrooms that employees use, and that there are visible means of refrigeration.

When you do get sick, which is just about inevitable if you travel a lot, usually you’ll be better in one or two days. But if your symptoms are severe or you’re running a fever or have other unusually alarming symptoms, get yourself to a doctor fast. I won’t venture into giving any medical advice, but you might want to take a look at what the American Academy of Family Physicians has to say about how to deal with ordinary symptoms and  what symptoms to take very seriously.

For further information:

Wishing you safe and healthy travels! If you have some good tips on keeping safe from foodborne problems while traveling, please share them here by using the “Leave a comment” link.

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