Food safety on holiday

Diarrhoea affects a large number of travellers, and the risk is increased when holidaying abroad. Physical pain and discomfort can spoil an entire foreign holiday, especially if language barriers make it difficult to obtain appropriate medical treatment.


The risk of contracting travellers diarrhoea (gastrointestinal disease) is greater in less well developed countries. Health standards may be lower and facilities such as water supply, sewerage and refuse disposal may be rudimentary.

Diarrhoea can result from:

  • exposure to new micro-organisms associated with food and water;
  • poor sanitation;
  • poor kitchen hygiene and personal hygiene;
  • hot weather and flies.

On holiday people tend to eat out more often, and the food they eat is likely to include animal proteins to which their bodies are not accustomed. Hotels and catering establishments with limited facilities often cater for large numbers of people from many parts of the world. All these factors can contribute to the likelihood of contracting diarrhoea.

Tourists need to be aware of the health risks and to exercise care. In some countries problems can arise from drinking the water and eating such foods as raw vegetables, salads, unpeeled fruit, raw shellfish, ice cream and ice cubes, undercooked meat and fish, uncooked food and reheated food.


Guidelines for a healthy holiday

Before you go:

  • If you are going abroad, consult your doctor for advice on the need for vaccinations or other preventive measures.
  • Pack water sterilisation tablets if you are travelling outside Europe or where mains water is not available. These can be bought from most pharmacies.
  • Take a suitable medical kit containing oral rehydration salts if you are visiting remote areas or less well developed countries, especially if you are taking young children.

Safe eating and drinking:

  • Personal hygiene is vital. Always wash your hands after going to the lavatory and before handling or eating food. This is particularly important if you are camping or caravanning.
  • Check that the water you use is safe. If in doubt, boil it or use slow-release disinfectant tablets or bottled water. Carbonated (fizzy) bottled water is the safest; it's unlikely the bottle has been refilled from the tap.
  • Remember to use safe water for cleaning your teeth and for preparing food. If you have any doubts about the water supply, boil the water before adding it to food or making ice for drinks.
  • Be especially careful with water used to prepare an infants meal. Always use water that has been boiled, preferably bottled water but not carbonated or mineral water.
  • Hot drinks such as tea and coffee are usually safe to drink. So are bottled or canned beers, wines, fruit juices and carbonated soft drinks, but always check that the bottle seals are unbroken before opening them. Avoid adding ice cubes to your drink unless you are sure they are made from safe water.
  • Eat freshly-cooked food whenever possible. Make sure it has been cooked thoroughly and is still hot when served. Eating cooked food that has been held at room temperature for several hours constitutes a major risk of contracting food poisoning.
  • Avoid uncooked food apart from fruits and vegetables that can be peeled or shelled. Avoid fruits with damaged skins.
  • In some countries fish and shellfish may be suspect, and ice cream from unreliable sources may be contaminated and cause illness. If you have any doubts, don't eat these foods.
  • Unpasteurised milk should be avoided or boiled before consumption.
    Try not to eat food that has been exposed to flies.

    If you get diarrhoea:

    Avoid becoming dehydrated. This is particularly important for babies, young children and elderly people. Drink more fluids, such as bottled, boiled or treated water.

    Most attacks of diarrhoea clear up within a few days, but if the condition continues for longer than a day, prepare and drink oral rehydration salts. If these are not available, mix six level teaspoons of sugar and one level teaspoon of salt in one litre of safe water and drink this. Eat a little light food.

    Avoid proprietary medicines containing antibiotics. Seek medical help if the diarrhoea persists and/or if there is blood in the stools, repeated vomiting or fever.

When you return to the UK:

Contact your doctor if the symptoms persist, and say that you have been abroad.

If you work as a food-handler you must advise your employer of any incident of food poisoning or gastro-intestinal illness before you return to work.

If there was an outbreak at your hotel and you want to take things further contact Holiday Travel Watch.

 For further information please contact the Food Safety Team