Staying Healthy in Developing Countries

I had just taken my first shower in Yaounde, Cameroon, and among other things that did for me, it helped me decide (if there was any doubt at all) that I would be using bottled water to brush my teeth while here!!  I plugged the drain while I showered, because I wanted to wash my travel clothes in the water, and was quite surprised by the color of the water that filled the tub….. and I wasn’t that dirty so I know it wasn’t from me!  I definitely wouldn’t be trying to wash anything that’s white this way while in Cameroon!  I was staying in a fairly nice hotel there, so I am not saying to criticize the hotel.  It’s just a reflection of the quality of water available in the country, not the hotel.

All of this has got me thinking about how to stay healthy while traveling, and how I’ve managed it in Africa for 6 months, with nothing more notable than a strong cold/mild flu.  I do use the tap water to brush my teeth when I stay at the Kempinski in Djibouti, but I also have talked about their up-to-WHO-standards water filtration system with a friend who works for the hotel, so I know it’s safe.  Even knowing that, though, I still don’t drink the tap water even there.  But whenever I’m anywhere that I don’t feel comfortable with the filtration level of the water (like in Cameroon) or I don’t know the first thing about how filtered or purified the tap water is, sticking to bottled water for everything including brushing teeth is definitely a must!

Here are a few other healthy-traveler tips that I abide by for this type of travel.

  • Talk to your doctor before you travel anywhere exotic.  If you’re going somewhere where gastrointestinal issues are expected or likely, maybe ask them to prescribe something like Cipro for you, and to give you instructions on how to take it if you need it.  Also, before you go to your doctor’s office, check the Center for Disease Control’s website at to ensure that you’ve had all the necessary immunizations, and know about any risks of particular diseases that you might be exposed to.  The key to staying healthy is prevention and early detection, so for both of these, knowledge is paramount, and educating yourself is a good idea.  You can also ask your doctor to look at the CDC website with you, so that you’re both on the same page, and he or she can answer any questions you might have.
  • Know your own body and its limitations.  If you’re someone who gets sick easily when you’re worn down, make sure to budget in some time to recover from jet lag before you do anything too adventurous.  If you have a weak stomach, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try new things while traveling, but maybe it does mean that you should pace yourself and try new things bit by bit. Or, if you’re like me, and find that your stomach sometimes reacts negatively to certain food or drink (for me it’s coffee or anything with a lot of caffeine, particularly in combination with greasy foods), keep that in mind when you are ordering, and don’t let yourself get too caught up in the moment…. or just be prepared for & willing to deal with the consequences if you do!
  • When you’re somewhere where water supplies might be questionable, avoid uncooked, leafy greens.  I know that might sound counter-intuitive, as we’ve all been taught that salad is good for us, but a salad washed in contaminated water can be very dangerous.  In general, cooked veggies are OK because the heat will kill most of what we’re concerned about being exposed to, so I never hesitate to eat cooked vegetables when I travel.
  • If you’re ordering something with meat in it, make sure it is well-cooked.  Now, I love a good rare steak myself.  But I would be VERY hesitant before ordering one while traveling.  In fact, even when I am home, I won’t order a steak rare unless I am very confident that it has been handled with an appropriate level of care – consistent refrigeration, not frozen and refrozen, not left out in the open air for too long.  I’ll generally only order a rare steak at a fancy steakhouse, and anywhere else I’ll take my meat thoroughly cooked, thanks!   I’ve seen in the markets in Africa that meat is sold out in open-air markets, and piled up (sometimes on cardboard boxes) in the sun.  If you are not sure that your meat is coming from a safe source, either avoid it, or at least make sure that it is well cooked.  I have a friend who told me that while she will eat street food wherever she travels, she will ask them to reheat it, knowing that often in Africa that’s done in hot oil, and while it might not make it a good diet alternative, she doesn’t get sick from her food, so that’s a worthwhile trade-off to me!
  • Make sure to travel with at least a few basic items: I like to make sure I have packed some band aids, some Aleve and/or Advil, some allergy medication, Neosporin, some anti-nausea medication like Dramamine or Gravol, and a pouch or two of NeoCitran (my favorite Canadian cold medicine – one or two doses of this, and I can usually fight off any cold with the good night’s sleep it lets me get!)  I pick some up every time I go to Canada, just to make sure I have some on-hand for other travels, or even just at home.
  • Unless you’re confident in its purification level, don’t drink the tap water.  I know, I said that above.  But it’s important, and worth repeating!!

Well, that’s all I can think of for now.  If you have additional suggestions, please feel free to add them into the comments here!  In the meantime, I’ll sign off.  Hoping that everyone stays in good health,



UPDATE: after failing to follow my own advice while in Tanzania, I find myself in beautiful Zanzibar, with fever, chills, vomiting and diarrhea……. just goes to show, you should do as I say and not as I do.  The medium rare steak I had last night (with melted blue cheese) was very good, but not worth all of this.  I really hope it wasn’t the steak, as it really was a delicious meal!  Of course it could also be the milky passion colada I had last night – perhaps the ice was unpurified or the coconut milk was spoiled?  Both likely culprits.  Well, after 6 months in Africa, I think I had gotten cocky and thought my stomach had developed a resistance.  Obviously not.  Thankfully, I have some Cipro thanks to the wonderful Doctor B who I worked with in Cameroon, so I’m starting to feel a little better.  So the Cipro part of the advice is crucial!  Hope to be back to adventuring to share more tales with you soon!


SLIGHTLY LATER UPDATE: the Cipro totally worked!  After a couple of days, I’m back to eating & drinking normally (though slightly more cautiously) and feeling totally better.  Thanks again, Doctor B!

6 responses to “Staying Healthy in Developing Countries

  1. I have to try some NeoCitran! My friend also swears by Oscillococcinum (homeopathic) to ward off flus or colds. My greatest love is Neti Pot (Neil Med Squeeze Bottle) and the more portable Simply Saline to prevent and soothe colds and allergy symptoms and deal with dirty air in polluted cities (don’t you love sneezing up black stuff?). There is nothing more infuriating than getting sick in the middle of a vacation or an adventure…

    • I have been using NeoCitran since university days. It is definitely not homeopathic, but it works!! It’s kind of similar to Theraflu, so it has the same mix with hot water soothing-ness to it. And I have to totally agree about the Neti Pot – I have a travel Neti Pot ( that I picked up at Whole Foods that came to Africa with me. Definitely helpful, and lightweight.

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