How to stay healthy when travelling to India.
Despite India having outbreaks of diseases that few of us have even heard of like leptospirosis or Japanese encephalitis, the truth is that it is the same few problems that kept coming up with my health. While I have to make it perfectly clear that in no way am I a medical professional, I do, however, have over four and a half years experience travelling in South Asia and over seven years in Asia as a whole.
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 and quite often the hard way in all fairness. I think its a virtue in life to be able to learn from someone else’s mistakes and lord knows I have made a lot of them.
If in any way 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. So here it is, my rundown of what I have found in my experience to be the most common problems you will face.
Definitely number one on my list! While the food in India is undeniably delicious, travelling, your tastebuds poses its fair share of risks. 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.
Don’t let this discourage you from branching out and enjoying the many culinary delights that this country has to offer because that would be a real shame. Be cautious but do not be afraid is my advice. The food is just too good to miss and for more information on where to get the best food, check out my post.
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 cases of food poisoning I have had was from tourist spots. It is because the products to make that 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 turn over off 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.
Quite often, local Dhabas can seem grubby, but they tend to make only a few dishes, and they tend to be fresh every day. While on the road I have experienced many tourist places that look nice in the restaurant but, like a medieval rubbish dump in the kitchen.
Now we have established it is pretty much inevitable you will come across some kind of problem with this while on the road, let us take a look at what to do when it does. Many backpackers carry or purchase Loperamide. It is essential to understand it is a stopper and cures nothing whatsoever but, it can be beneficial on a travel day when you won’t have access to a toilet all the time.
If the problem does not get better, you can go to any pharmacist and, get a course of antibiotics such as norfloxacin or ciprofloxacin. That’s right; you can simply purchase strong medicines right over the counter with no prescription. Just make sure they are in date and have not been stored for months on end in direct sunlight. If you still don’t get better, you will need to go to the hospital.
It is essential to stay well hydrated, and I have found the ORS salts you can also buy in any pharmacist does the trick pretty good. Another problem with keeping 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. I often have a simple breakfast, such as porridge and a local dinner in the evening. 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 I eat, bloating, excess gas and diarrhoea. In the later stages, your burps will taste like eggs, and there will be many of those.
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.
It is 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. I know that’s easier said than done. Wear loose-fitting clothes and change your socks often. If medication does not work, consult a doctor. Also to note even small cuts and scratches can become infected quickly. It is vital to keep them clean and apply antiseptic cream.
The cruel heat and sunburn
Many parts of the country can become brutally hot, and if you arrive during the summertime, it is essential to take your time and get used to the new climate. Don’t try and fit much into the day. Even in the high summer, the early morning is still quite pleasant. So I have found Its best to get up early as the locals tend to do and get as much done as possible in the early hours. Miss out the midday sun and stay inside. Drink plenty of fluids and use rehydration salts where needed.
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, I have found cold showers, fanning the body and most importantly getting out of the heat are all useful measures to take if you are in a room with a fan change for a room with AC as it makes a world of difference.
The UV from the sunshine can be brutal most times of the year. I am quite fair myself, so I have found the best way to avoid sunburn is to simply cover-up. 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 breath. I use SPF factor 50 to protect what skin I cant cover. 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.
Another problem that can sometimes arise in these gruelling conditions is prickly heat. I have had this a couple of times, and I can tell you with confidence it is very uncomfortable indeed. 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.
Altitude sickness or AMS (acute mountain sickness) is caused by travelling to high to fast. Breathing becomes more difficult as you are not able to get enough air. It can become a serious medical emergency really 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 can be treated with paracetamol. I recommend avoiding ibuprofen and aspirin if you’re coming from the lowlands. Dengue fever can become rife and will exacerbate the condition, particularly in the monsoon (the most popular time to travel to the mountains.) Moving down in elevation will also help to treat your symptoms, even 300m can make a lot of difference.
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. Given how severe AMS is, I don’t recommend using this cause of action, despite your schedule.
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 in and not try to rush.
Bites and stings
Spend any time in India just about anywhere, and you will be bitten by something, and those bites are just a fact of life here. My golden rule! Rule number 1 is don’t scratch. It will only make things worse. Many things bite, but the most common is the mosquitos. I wouldn’t like to comment if you want to take malaria treatment or not as that’s a personal choice. I would suggest checking from a reputable source if your trip even requires you to take them or not. I have found Healthpro or Fitfortravel to be the goto websites when making this choice for many people.
Personally, If my trip requires me to take medicine and it is a short time, I take Malarone as they 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, But it makes me more sensitive to the sun.
The Best defence, in my opinion, 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. 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. Also, I use tiger balm to relieve the itching of bites as it really works. If you do this yourself use the white one as it does not stain your clothes orange.
Dengue fever Is quite common during the monsoon, especially in many of the big cities. The mosquito that carries these bites in the day and there is no cure. I had this once before, and I caught it in Odisha. The symptoms are the same as malaria (flu-like symptoms,) 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 rest, paracetamol and vitamin c.
There are many other things you will find that bites 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.
Leaches do not carry any diseases either, but there 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 find yourself feeling unwell after you have been 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 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
This can dramatically fluctuate depending on where you are and what you can afford. There are government and private healthcare available almost everywhere. They vary a lot in quality as you can see in the picture. This was a dentist stool set up on the side of the road offering root canal surgery! 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. For detailed information for female travellers to India, I have written a separate post, so hit the link provided.
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 a lot of 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 🙂