How to stay healthy when travelling to India
With so many tourists heading to this incredible country, answering the question of how to stay healthy when travelling in India is becoming ever more important.
Despite India having outbreaks of diseases that few of us have even heard of, like leptospirosis or Japanese encephalitis, the truth is it is the same few problems that keep coming up with my health. It is important to learn what those things are to help you avoid running into the same problems as i have and perhaps keep you out of the hospital.
I have been travelling in Asia on and off for about seven years and as you could probably well imagine, I have been very sick several times. I am certainly no doctor and would never claim to be. However, I believe that I have accrued more than enough practical experience to be in a position to hand out some good advice.
In my post, How to stay healthy when travelling to India, I want to share with my readers what I have learned over my time here. I think it’s a virtue in life to be able to learn from someone else’s mistakes and you can trust me when I say I learned this stuff the hard way.
If you are not sure of something always always seek professional medical advice as soon as possible for your safety. This post is more about how to avoid getting into that position in the first place as I take a look at what has worked for me in the past. I can not overstate how useful blogs like mine will be for you as often this sort of information will be missed in your home country. So without further ado, here it is guys.
The infamous Dehli belly is definitely number one on my list of problems you are likely to face. The food in India is undeniably delicious. However, you are quite likely to experience some kind of problem with your belly within the first few weeks of your travel. This is due to poor food handling practices and the perfect environment for bacteria to breed.
Many backpackers think that if they just eat the tourist food that is available all over the country, they won’t get sick. Ironically, nearly all of the most severe food poisoning cases I have ever had were from popular tourist spots. The products to make tourist food are very expensive compared to local ingredients, so the owners tend to be very reluctant to throw them away.
No matter where you eat, have a look to see if it is busy as it is a good indicator of the likely hood of you getting sick or not. A busy restaurant means a fast turnover of ingredients and in all probability, what you are eating will be fresh. It also shows trust from the clientele, and there is a much better chance that food will also be tasty.
Local Dhabas can often seem grubby, but they tend to make only a few dishes, and they are fresh every day. While I have been on the road I have experienced many tourist places that look nice in the restaurant and like a medieval rubbish dump in the kitchen.
In the event of you getting a dodgy belly, you can try Loperamide. This will stop you from going too often and losing water. Please do not treat yourself to more than the stated dose as it can turn your poo to clay and make you blocked up for days on end. I have done this so take it from me that it hurts! It is important to understand it is a stopper and cures nothing whatsoever but, it can be very beneficial on a travel day when you won’t have access to a toilet all the time and you dont want to fill your pants on the bus.
If the problem does not get better, you can go to any pharmacist and get an antibiotic such as norfloxacin or ciprofloxacin. That’s right; you can simply purchase many strong medicines right over the counter with no prescription if you need them or not? Just make sure they are in date and have not been stored for months on end in the direct sunlight. If you still don’t get better quite obviously, you will need to go to the hospital.
I think it is a surprise for no one to hear it is essential to stay well hydrated in the baking Indian sunshine. If you are feeling poorly, now is the time to invest in good air conditioning. Losen those purse strings if you are on a budget, as dehydration is not something you want to mess with. You can have good faith that the hospital bill will be way more than your AC.
I have found that ORS rehydration salts are especially useful at keeping you hydrated when you are leaking buckets of water from your rear end. You can buy them from pretty much any pharmacist and they will only set you back a few rupees. Simply dissolve one packet in your normal bottle of water and you are sure to feel a little better.
If you liked these tips and want to find out more about what to pack in your medical kit for India, please follow the link provided for more information.
I will also add that another way to keep your belly happy is the slow introduction of spicy foods. I have found that not jumping straight into a local diet is the best way to get used to it. When I first arrive I will have a simple breakfast, such as porridge and a local dinner in the evening as I slowly get my belly used to the new cuisine. As tasty as the food is, most of our bodies will take time to get used to the change of diet.
Giardia is a parasite that can be found on surfaces, food, water, soil or faeces. It is commonly transferred via water and is resistant to chlorine. It seems to be very common in India, as I have found this to be a problem several times. The symptoms that I have experienced include feeling sick after eating, bloating, excess gas and diarrhoea. In the later stages, your burps will taste like eggs and have faith. There will be many of those. It is a dead giveaway as they are extreme.
It will clear up on its own, but it can take months and is very unpleasant. However, it can be treated. Seek out a pharmacist and get some tinidazole and metronidazole for a 7-day course of treatment.
Fungal infections are something I have encountered many times, particularly during and on the run-up to the monsoon. Most fungal infections can be treated with creams containing clotrimazole. Keep the moist areas of your body as dry as possible, although I know that’s easier said than done. Wear loose-fitting clothes and change your socks often. As it is with anything else if medication does not work, consult a doctor.
The cruel Indian sunshine can be gruelling. I can’t stress enough that you should not try and fit much into the day. However, even in the high summer, the early morning is still quite pleasant. I have found It’s best to get up early as the locals do and get as much done as possible in the early hours. I would advise you to try and miss out on the midday sun as much as possible and stay inside. Of course, it is wise to drink plenty of fluids and use rehydration salts where needed, but you do not need me to tell you that.
The intense heat can easily lead to heatstroke, and that quickly becomes a medical emergency. Symptoms include fatigue, a temperature above 40 degrees centigrade, confusion, seizures and eventual collapse. If you suspect you have heat stroke take a cold shower and, most importantly, get out of the heat as soon as possible. Get under the AC and HYDRATE! If your symptoms persist, you should seek medical assistance without hesitation, as this is something that can get out of control without warning.
I have found the best way to avoid sunburn is to simply cover up and yes, I learned this the hard way as well. Light cotton clothes are best. Buy them as thin as possible. Use hats to keep the sun off your head, but they must be loose-fitting to let the skin breathe. I use SPF factor 50 to protect what skin I cant cover.
Please don’t underestimate the sun in the high mountains of the north. It is not so hot, but the suns rays are fierce, and you will quickly burn if you neglect to take care of yourself. I would also advise you to wear sunglasses in the mountains as the UV rays can wreak havoc on your eyes. The fact that there are many charities set up specifically to treat cataracts for the local population screams volumes, I think.
Another problem that can sometimes arise is prickly heat. Small red itchy spots can appear anywhere on your body without warning. I have found cold showers and loose fit clothes are the best answer. The good news is it does not seem to last long. You can buy powder to relieve the symptoms. However, that relief does not last five minutes in all reality.
Altitude sickness or AMS (acute mountain sickness) is caused by travelling too high to fast. Breathing becomes more difficult as you are not able to get enough air. It can become a serious medical emergency fast if it is ignored. AMS can affect anyone at any time, regardless of your age or fitness level. The symptoms can include; headache, lethargy, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite and shortness of breath and will usually present themselves within a few hours of ascending above 3000m.
Mild symptoms of AMS can be treated with paracetamol. I recommend avoiding ibuprofen and aspirin if you’re coming from the lowlands. Dengue fever can become rife in the wet season down there and will exacerbate the condition and even cause internal bleeding. Travel during the monsoon is without question the most popular time to travel to the mountains, so beware of the hidden risks.
Moving down in elevation will help to treat your symptoms most effectively of cause. If you can get below 3000m, then it’s all good, but often this is not an option. However, even 300m can be helpful if you can.
Some people take the drugs Acetazolamide or Dexamethasone to tackle the symptoms or be able to ascend faster. I do not recommend this as it masks the signs and you won’t have any idea how bad your condition has become. Despite your schedule, I don’t recommend using this course of action because of how severe AMS can be.
The best piece of advice I can give to anyone is to remember it’s not a race. Take it slow and remember that most of us are probably only there once in a lifetime. It’s better to absorb it all and not try to rush.
Bites and stings
Bites and stings are a real pain in the &£$!. Spend any time just about anywhere in India and you are sure to be bitten by something. It is simply a fact of life here.
As cliche as it sounds, my golden rule, is don’t scratch! It really does make everything so much worse than it has to be. Bites can become infected easily in the tropical heat. Many things bite, but the most common by far are mosquitos.
I wouldn’t like to comment if you want to take malaria treatment or not, as that’s a personal choice. However, I would suggest checking from a reputable source if your trip even requires you to take them or not. I have found Healthpro to be the go-to website when making this choice for many people. The British NHS uses the same website to check if you should take it or not anyway.
Personally, If my trip requires me to take medicine and it is short, I always take Malarone as they tend to come with few side effects. If I have to stay longer, I take doxycycline as it protects against tick-borne diseases and leptospirosis as well. It makes me more sensitive to the sun, but it is better than catching a deadly disease. Again this is just an honest rundown of my personal experience.
I think it is fair to say that the Best defence is trying not to get bitten in the beginning. I found light clothing, long sleeves, mosquito coils, nets and DEET based repellent to be all helpful to your cause. Also, if it is a high-risk area, maybe think about investing in an AC room rather than a fan as there will be fewer mosquitoes.
I use tiger balm to relieve the itching of bites. It may sound like an old wives tale, but I have found it really works for me. If you do this yourself, use the white one as it does not stain your clothes orange. It never ever comes out neither no matter how much you wash it.
Dengue fever Is quite common during the monsoon, especially in many of the big cities. The mosquito that carries this potentially deadly disease bites in the day and there is no cure. I caught it myself from a trip to Odisha, so I am speaking first hand when I say it is no fun. The symptoms are the same as malaria (flu-like symptoms). What’s more, there is no way to tell the difference without a blood test, so see a doctor. In the event you do have it, all you can do is take a rest, paracetamol and vitamin c.
You will find many other things that bite, such as Ticks, Fleas, leeches, bed bugs, bees, and wasps. Bed bugs don’t carry diseases, but they really itch, and the rash seems to last longer than other bites. When you are booking a hotel, have a look at the room. Check for blood marks around the bed as this is a good indicator if there is a problem or not.
Leaches do not carry any diseases either, but their bite is very itchy and can quickly become infected. Buy a small jar of iodine to clean the wounds daily. If you find one eating, you don’t pull it off as the teeth can get left behind and become embedded in your skin, making infection all the more likely. The leach has an anticoagulant in its bite, so when it comes off, you bleed a bit. Salt gets them off pretty quick, but if you want to be a little more humane. Let it finish its meal, and it will come off by itself. It won’t make much difference at that point.
Ticks, however, do carry disease and if you feel unwell after being bitten by one, see a doctor as soon as you can. After these bugs bite you, they will want to stay on. If you find one on yourself, remove it carefully with tweezers and be careful not to squeeze. It is easier to get someone else to do it for you most of the time. But it can be pretty intimate work.
Availability of health care in India
The availability of healthcare in India can dramatically fluctuate depending on where you are and what you can afford. There are government and private healthcare facilities available almost everywhere. But then India has some world-class medical facilities. As with anywhere, you get what you pay for. It is just the results are so much more dramatic here.
For me, another factor is how serious it is. That is to say, if I just need a diagnosis or a blood test, the government hospitals tend to be just fine for that. They are very affordable, so I use them for minor problems, and they tend not to try and upsell you any treatment.
In the event of something serious, I wouldn’t hesitate to payout. But this is just in my experience what I have found. Go with the medical treatment that you feel comfortable with. You can find medical facilities near you online and check their ratings. The pharmaceutical industry is a very competitive business in India, but be prepared to be upsold treatments you do not need.
A brief note for woman travellers is if you use the contraceptive pill, Take enough of your own supply for the full duration of your trip. They’re not so easy to get your hands on and almost certainly not your brand. Sanitary towels are available countrywide, but tampons are not. Again if you prefer tampons, take your own adequate supples. Thrush can become a problem for some in the heat and if you find you are suffering from it, go to the pharmacist, and the treatment is easy to come by.
Summary of my post How to stay healthy when travelling to India
As I said, I do not work in the medical industry in any way. But this is what I have found In my experience, and these are the actions I took to prevent the issues from happening again while I am on the road. If you have any questions, ask your doctor and express any concerns. But to be fair, many things I was worried about turned out never to be an issue. As long as you use common sense, a lot of the problems can be avoided.
Here ends my post on this subject, and I hope you have found it useful. I would love for my readers to share their experiences with me, and if you have any more questions you think I may be able to help you with, then you know what to do. Until the next time, my fellow intrepid traveller, stay safe and happy trails.Follow me on social media 🙂