Drinking Water Safety for International Travelers
Traveling abroad promises excitement with the new countries you will explore. Although visiting new regions of the world can be intriguing and impressive, it's important to protect you and your family from risks of unsafe drinking water. Many countries have serious problems with the quality of drinking water, making it unsafe for travelers to consume it.
When traveling internationally, especially to a developing country, take precautions to avoid the country's drinking water. A developing country would include countries where citizens typically have low incomes and health and education systems do not provide extensive public services for citizens. Citizens of a developing country can usually drink water without issue because they have become immune to bacteria and parasites in the water. Tourists and visitors do not have this immunity and can become ill with intestinal upset.
- High-risk areas of international travel include Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
- Southern Europe and some islands in the Caribbean present an intermediate risk. Canada, Northern Europe, Australia, New Zealand and other Caribbean islands present a low risk.
- The cardinal rule for water consumption in high-risk areas is to avoid using tap water at all times.
- People with weak immune systems could also become sick from inhaling steam or water vapor from a hot tub or shower.
- The amount of water necessary to make someone sick can be minimal because parasites and bacteria are present in any amount of water.
Travelers can also become sick from food in developing countries if the food was not handled correctly during preparation.
- Raw and undercooked meats and raw fruits and vegetables are especially high-risk in these areas. Cooking foods helps minimize the risk.
Many illnesses can occur from unsafe drinking water. E. coli is common and results in nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Noroviruses often affect travelers in Central America and on cruise ships, resulting in diarrhea. Shigella bacteria lead to dysentery, which involves diarrhea and fever. Campylobacter is a bacteria and giardia is a parasite, both causing diarrhea symptoms. Salmonella and rotavirus are also common threats to travelers. It's also possible to contract hepatitis from drinking water.
When drinking water internationally, choose sealed, bottled water whenever possible. Ideally, you should receive a bottle sealed so you can break it yourself. If sealed, bottled water is unavailable, choose filtered, chemically treated or boiled water. For beverages that contain water, boil the water for at least one minute to make it safe. Avoid beverages such as fruit juice because they could be diluted with tap water. International brands of carbonated water and drinks are generally safest. Break the seals of any bottled beverages yourself to ensure that they have not been refilled. Use bottled water for teeth brushing and rinsing a toothbrush, also.
- Other sources of water, such as rain water, surface water and well water, are also unsafe in developing countries due to the possibility of cross-contamination.
- Chlorination cannot destroy all bacteria and parasites in water, so chlorinated water is not automatically safe.
- Ice is not safe unless you know it was made from bottled or boiled water.
- Even moisture on a can or bottle of water can contain harmful organisms in the water that could make you sick.
- Any time you will be away from access to sealed and bottled water, carry your own drinking water with you so you have safe water.
It's possible to treat local water chemically to make it safe to drink. A 2-percent iodine solution will eradicate many pathogens from water. Allow treated water to sit 30 minutes before using it. If the iodine leaves an unpleasant taste and smell, add vitamin C to the water to mask the iodine. Filtering water is not always effective or practical, making this option more risky than chemical treatment.
Treatment for traveler's diarrhea varies, depending on severity of symptoms and other factors specific to the illness and the traveler. A physician may be able to prescribe or recommend treatment options that will help with symptoms and recovery.
Written By: Lynn Taylor