First off, don’t be paranoid or fearful about getting sick. Trust your instincts when you’re there. With the stark shift in air/weather/food/water/environment – of course there’s bound to be a shift in the body.
Chances are you will contend with a stomach bug or two while in the Mother Land – after all, it’s a part of the Indian experience! The land of deep purification on every level – mind, body and spirit. However, with preparation and common sense, it will be “minor.” That said, first timers will likely get quite sick for about a week at least, on one or two occasions minimum. It’s a part of the ‘Indian welcome’ – and a cleanse on all levels. The point here is to be prepared. This article will help you do just that. Being accepting of the fact you will probably get sick before you go helps greatly. Don’t resist. Just surrender to what Mother India is showing you. She is powerful through many forms, and you will no doubt be forever changed. Don’t let a little fear of a bug or two stop you from listening and following the call of your heart. For there is no other way to live! (Fear is an opportunity to rise to the growth and expansion that is desperately calling you.)
When I first started going to India solo in my early 20s, I was somewhat naïve and didn’t have the knowledge or discipline that I have now. So that was when I contended with a case of amoebic dysentery that just wouldn’t quit – and finally after seven months of getting hit with a bout each month – I fled back to Canada. These days I get a bug for 1 or two days once or twice on a three to six month trip. I get a cold twice for a few days within that same time frame. What helps greatly is my trusty and mostly holistic medical kit – which fits nicely into a freezer-size zip lock bag (see below for details). And I am on it whenever any ailment of any type arises, thanks to my portable medical kit. That is key. To nip the illness in the bud before it consumes you. We often have this mentality of ignoring the obvious signs, secretly hoping it will just go away. And it doesn’t. It takes two seconds to stop whatever you’re doing and pop a supplement and/or some tincture. Your body and mind will thank you for it! Seriously.
The street food looks and smells so incredibly scrumptious. But. Be warned. Look can be oh so deceiving when you are bent over an Indian toilet for the next few days peeing out of your ass, and clutching your stomach, trying not to vomit at the same time, while your head is pounding and your joints are aching. Is your body contracting with fear yet? Good, because that’s my point! Avoiding street stalls and their seductive smells and sizzling sounds is an excellent way to practice discipline. You know discipline can be good for you! At the same time, you’re practicing Vedantic qualities like patience/indifference/forbearance/tolerance. Really. You will thank yourself for it. Because being really sick SUCKS. Take it from me. I learned the hard way. Why not direct all that energy on having a deep and expansive journey, instead of spending it running between the toilet and your bed?
There are a number of ways to prevent getting sick and below I will give you the lowdown on these preventatives. There are also a few things you can take to build up your immunity and stomach to prevent getting sick so easily, especially if you already have a weak stomach and/or immune system.
Here I share with you what I’ve learned from 15 years of travelling the Earth, mostly in developing countries – including several trips to India. (Note: These tips can be applied to travel in most developing countries too.)
- My 3 rules of thumb: no salads, no deep fried food and no non-bottled water. Even if the menu insists on the salad being organic and washed with filtered water, I still don’t eat it. Because I’ve learned from my mistakes in the past where I did, and I paid for it dearly. Now I just avoid it, and then indulge in a salad frenzy when I return to Canada. And hey, salads never tasted so good as they do when you return to the west! No deep fried foods, no matter how good it smells or looks! This means not only to avoid the street stalls, but also ordering fried food in cafés and restaurant. Often the oil is very old, as it isn’t getting changed over often. The cooking area is often not so sanitary. The same dirty water is being used over and over to “wash” up, and flies are swarming. The cook is not only preparing the food, but also handling the money, which is full of filthy germs. Prep is not being stored properly and there’s no refrigeration. Have I turned you off yet? Good.
- Get referrals for cafes from other travellers, friends or a reputable guide book. Or just see where it’s busy and/or where there is western clientele and/or high turnover.
- Avoid buffets and shellfish.
- Wipe your silverware every time, and dry wipe any dish that still has water on it after it’s been washed.
- Avoid ice cream and other frozen treats. Frequent power cuts in some regions melt and freeze treats repeatedly, which spells sickness. Go get an Indian sweet instead, they are safer. And so yummy!
- Holistic medical kit. This is very key to benefiting your health! Fill a freezer-size zip lock bag with the following: fast-acting diarrhea medication (an effective one that does the job quickly is Loperamide), Traumeel, grape seed extract, oil of oregano. (Plus the items you can get there inexpensively include: electrolytes, probiotics, vitamin c, arnica, tea tree oil, aloe vera gel, tiger balm, eucalyptus oil, apis melfica). Two more good Ayurvedic remedies you can get there: kanthika (for a sore throat), sitopaladi churna (for cold and congestion). Also carry Boroplus – an all-purpose Ayurvedic miracle cream for absolutely every kind of skin ailment. It’s magic! Two more things other travellers swear by: colloidal silver and bentonite clay (both of which you can get there inexpensively from a health store). Each of these will support a stomach bug – and the former is also good to counter a cold/flu. If you deal with allergies, take some antihistamines.
- Some mainstream meds to consider: Ibuprofen (you can get it there easily and cheaply – good for menstrual cramps, persistent headache, anti-inflammatory) and Cipro (by prescription, a fast-acting diarrhea medication). For women, bring along treatment for the potential of a vaginal yeast infection, eg clotrimazole pessaries or Diflucan tablet.
- Wash your hands often and carry instant sanitizer. Soap in bathrooms or at hand-washing sinks in restaurants is pretty much non-existent. Sanitize your hands often, including before each meal and when you’ve been in public buses or trains/guesthouse rooms, etc. Locally, the Himalaya brand makes a great eco brand that will fit in your purse. It is common in India to eat with your right hand, so keep’em clean. Note: using your left hand to eat is deemed unsanitary so please avoid it.
- Ask for pure juice with no added water unless the server confirms the water used is filtered (and you’re in a reputable café or restaurant with lots of western clientele).
- Avoid ice in your drinks. It’s most often made with tap water.
- Stay cool and hydrated. Fresh coconut water is readily available on many street corners – and is excellent for keeping cool. It’s also great for digestion and rehydration. And particularly important if you’ve had a stomach ailment. Mint and lemon are also great choices for staying cool in hot climates. Most cafes and restaurants serve “lemon nana” which is an iced (and very tasty!) fresh mint/lemon drink. Aka: slurpee! Drink it. Often. Salt/sugar/lemon makes a great natural rehydration fluid too.
- Lassi is a popular local buttermilk cooling drink, often blended with fruits. Make sure the server does not add water to the drink. If there’s water added, confirm that it is filtered.
- Don’t eat anything fresh that can’t be peeled. There’s a high chance that fresh fruit and vegetables have been washed in contaminated water. Only eat fresh, uncooked food that can be peeled. Carry a swiss knife that can act as a peeler.
- If you have access to cooking facilities use them! It is such a treat to cook for yourself on the road, as eating out can get tiring. If you plan to stay in an area for a few weeks minimum, you can often rent a suite or apartment with kitchen facilities, or have a stove (and fridge if you like) brought in, inexpensively. This is also a sure way to ensure your meals are healthy.
- Preventatives: Take a probiotic capsule daily as a preventative to support your digestive health. If there are a lot of good bugs in your system, they will counter the bad bug as it tries to get in. Make sure they are the travel variety that do not require refrigeration. Some folks will take one daily for a few weeks leading up to travel to get a head start on their stomach health. Some travellers take a daily multi-vitamin and/or a vitamin c to build immunity. And because their diet is predominantly vegetarian, meat-eaters will opt for a daily B12 vitamin.
- Avoid meat. With refrigeration not being common, and frequent power cuts in some regions – it is best to avoid meat altogether. The majority of Indians (Hindus) are vegetarian and the fare is incredibly delicious!
- Brush your teeth with bottled water.
- When showering, do not swallow water. Shower singers be warned!
- Bring a 1ltr stainless steel water bottle. A much more enviro-friendly way to go. Most ashrams and some established guesthouses have filtered drinkable water available. If you are staying in one place for a few weeks minimum, consider buying a 20ltr bottle that you can re-fill from (and recycle afterwards). 5ltr bottles are available widely. Bisleri is a good nation-wide brand you can trust.
- If buying bottled water, ensure the seal is not broken before purchase.
- Don’t touch your mouth directly to the bottle when purchasing bottled juices and soft drinks. Ask for a straw or travel with a reusable stainless steel straw to be more eco-friendly.
- If you get really sick, consider going to a reputable hospital for the drugs. Sometimes mainstream medicine is just what the doctor ordered. Be sure to do a round of probiotics afterwards to restore your system.
- Mini first aid kit. If you plan to do some hiking, it’s a very good idea to be prepared.
- Mosquito protection.
- Odomos is a reliable local brand of mosquito repellent cream that is non-oily and not packed with chemicals.
- Mosquito net or not. If you’re not going to spend long periods in the jungle, I recommend skipping the mosquito net – as it is not such an issue in the villages/towns/cities. “Witching hour” is dusk, and as long as you keep your door shut (and your windows have screens), you’ll be fine. If you decide you really need one, you can pick one up there inexpensively. Electronic plug-in mosquito repellent is readily available in most shops. WARNING: It does contain a chemical so you have to be ok with that.
- Wear long sleeve shirts and long pants at dusk/evenings to avoid mosquitoes.
- Wear sunglasses when you’re on a bicycle or motorbike to protect your eyes from bugs and dust.
- Cover your head for protection from the hot sun. At the same time, you will be more respected, especially by men.
- High-grade sunscreen. Having brown skin and not easily burning, I never carried it for several years. That is, until I did a trek in the high Himalayas where the sun can be really intense. I’d heard stories from locals having their faces parched in the high mountains.
- Mask your face. You can buy a dust mask; get one made by a local tailor or just wrap a scarf or bandana around your face. I typically wear these when I am on a motorbike, in an auto-rickshaw, or on my bicycle. The dust, carbon monoxide and garbage burning can be intense, especially in towns and cities. There is no sense of air care in the country at all. Masking your face will also protect you from swallowing bugs and mosquitoes when riding vehicles as well.
- Travel insurance: Always wise, but not everyone opts for it since doctor consultations and medication is quite inexpensive in India. Do your research and make an informed decision.
- Wear a helmet when riding a motorbike or scooter. Only drive one if you are confident and have some experience. The driving in India can be madness. Ride with someone who you feel safe with and is experienced and confident, whom you know pretty well.
- Wear a seat belt if there is one. Ask your driver to drive the speed limit with caution. Say to him: “Dheereh dheereh say chaloh!” (Translation: Go slowly and carefully.)
Do you have a tip for staying healthy in India? Let’s here it! Please comment below.
For health tips for multi-day mountain treks please visit: Tips For Trekking: Gangotri to Tapovan via Gaumukh, Eastern Himalayas
(Cover Photo: the street stall – a place you should always avoid!)