Dr. Brent W. Laartz thought he was in for the ride of his lifetime when he set out on a horseback riding excursion in Costa Rica.
Admittedly younger and more naïve than he is today, Laartz – an infectious disease specialist and author of the book How to Avoid Contagious Diseases – failed to take some of the precautions necessary to avoid becoming one of the 40 percent of travelers every year who bring back an unwanted souvenir of a major illness from their trip.
“While on vacation it becomes entirely necessary to be more observant of the conditions that are in place that could harm you,” Laartz says.
Laartz offers tips on how to protect yourself on your next trip and to make sure the ride of a lifetime doesn’t turn into the worst ride of your life:
• Avoid local water in all forms. When you shower, don’t ingest the water and don’t be afraid to ask for a drink without ice. In lesser developed countries there is less infrastructure for clean water, effective sewage, and public health. If you can’t avoid unsanitary water, make sure you have iodine tablets and bring along a tea or coffee-making device that will boil water for you. Furthermore, you should buy a case or two of water when you arrive at a destination and check that all bottle caps are sealed to assure the bottled water isn’t just a refilled bottle of dirty, parasite-infested tap water.
• Protect your feet at all times. Use flip flops in the shower, and if you must be barefoot, put a towel down on the floor. Parasites can enter the skin of your feet and travel to different parts of the body. For the same reason that you should wear flip flops in the shower, you should never walk barefoot in any area of a foreign country, including your hotel room.
• Beware of fruits, vegetables, and condiments. If a fruit such as apples or bananas – which can both be peeled – isn’t available, it’s best to avoid. Any fruit or vegetable served fresh may have been washed in the same water or wiped with the same rag used to clean work surfaces in kitchens. The best advice is to bring your peeler so that you know nothing unsanitary has been applied to the fruit. Food such as potato salad and coleslaw, which contain uncooked mayonnaise, should also be avoided. And beware of any condiment not served in a bottle.
• By-pass the roadside stands. The aroma coming from that roadside stand or a little corner of an open-air market might smell great, but unless the food is piping hot when served, the best idea is to leave it alone. If you are concerned about the sanitation of a restaurant, order the food to go. Styrofoam boxes may be cleaner than the plate or fork on the table.
“How you protect yourself will determine whether your trip goes off without a hiccup,” Laartz says, “or whether you become another vacation casualty.”