How to avoid getting sick in India
Travelling to India cannot be done without considering the possible health side-effects. Everyone has heard of Delhi Belly, sometimes even using it as a catch-all phrase when referring to falling ill in other countries, like Indonesia.
Many travellers can attest to suffering from some level of food poisoning in India at some stage in their travels. Those who have travelled in India and escaped unscathed should consider themselves to be incredibly fortunate. Delhi Belly in India not only comes with a range of horrid symptoms but usually, they take hold at the most inconvenient of times, in the most inconvenient locations.
We’ll provide you with our best travelling in India tips as they relate to eating in India. From the safest foods to eat in India, to what foods to eat when sick, and our important tips for what not to eat in India, to give yourself the best possible chance at staying well.
Being sick in India isn’t pleasant
Imagine being extremely ill on a train packed full of people, and not in the cleanest of locations, where the next stop is hours away and toilets are not easy to get to, nor clean. Or how about on a 14-hour flight home or in a location that is so unhygienic that the conditions are adding to your sickness. Having to try and find a public toilet in India is difficult and most times, even when you find one, you won’t want to use it.
When you are sick in India however, you will most likely have no choice. The other option is to stay at your hotel (if that’s possible) or change your travel plans until you feel better.
Preparing for travel to India
This article isn’t about scaring people off India, nor is it to say that India is worse than many other countries in the world where getting sick from food or water is also highly possible. It’s also not intended just for people who don’t travel in luxurious style. Getting sick in India can happen just as easily to those who are on luxury tours, or staying in five-star hotels and eating in five-star locations.
Our aim with this article is about ensuring that potential travellers have accurate information about the possibility of getting sick in India, and where possible, if possible, how to avoid it. There’s no point covering up that these situations do happen. Being sick whilst travelling can ruin your entire holiday, or at least make it really uncomfortable.
We know! During our trip to India, we were both sick on several occasions, despite doing everything we could to ensure this didn’t happen.
Unless you are feeling adventurous, don’t run the gauntlet. Take these simple precautions to ensure illness doesn’t get the better of you in India and you can enjoy travelling in this interesting country.
IF YOU WANT TO EAT STREET FOOD IN INDIA, WE RECOMMEND GOING ON A TOUR WITH A REPUTABLE STREET FOOD TOUR. HERE’S OUR VIDEO OF OUR TOUR.
Quick tips to avoid getting sick in India
- Don’t eat raw meats or any kind of raw food.
- Don’t eat uncooked cheese or unpasteurised dairy products.
- Lassis (yoghurt drinks) might look delicious but the milk could be unpasteurised or refrigerated.
- Don’t eat fruit and vegetables that have been peeled and/or not cooked.
- Always wash your hands and then sanitise them too.
- Wipe over your cutlery if you are able before using them. Better still, take your own travel cutlery.
- Don’t eat off wet plates.
- Don’t drink directly out of bottles or cans. We use stainless steel straws.
- Don’t eat ice.
- Watch how the food or drink is being made. Some of the food and drink components might be actually sitting on ice. Whilst the ice might not go in your drink, they could still be contaminated from the ice.
- Don’t drink the water. Only drink filtered or bottled water or take a Lifestraw bottle. Don’t brush your teeth in it.
- Eat at popular food locations.
- Don’t eat food that is at room temperature (eg buffet style)
- Street food, whilst delicious, can also be a major contributor to getting sick in India. If you really want to try street food, do what we did and go with a reputable tour company.
- Wash your hands after touching money.
- Remember that you are always touching something (stair rails, vending machines, door handles etc) so keep your hands away from your mouth unless you have washed/sanitised them.
Why is getting sick in India so common?
India is a huge country. Geographically, it is the seventh-largest country by area. With a fast-growing population of around 1.32 billion people, it comes in second only to China for the most populous country in the world.
Despite rapid improvements made in GDP and the overall economy of the country, there remains a significant and visible divide amongst the people, still operated largely under the caste system. Extreme poverty exists, along with low literacy and education levels and various other social issues. Hygiene is one of them.
A lack of appropriate infrastructure and education means the correct disposal of rubbish is a problem. A lack of adequate sanitation means people live, eat, and work in unhygienic situations. Fresh, running water is absent in many parts of the country.
Even personal hygiene practices, particularly those that involve going to the toilet, contribute to this issue. Combine this with food preparation and it’s a recipe for a traveller to get sick.
Water is one of the main issues as it relates to food and eating in India, along with unhygienic practices used by those who grow, store and produce food for third-parties to buy and eat. As you travel around India, it will be common to see dishes being washed on the footpaths, using unclean water. Food can be stored without refrigeration and handled in unhygienic ways.
Our travelling tummies will also come into contact with different bacteria that are present in India that can cause an imbalance to our bodies.
Meat, which isn’t commonly found in India as they are a strong vegetarian population, may not have been handled correctly or refrigerated.
Where there are global health issues emerging, like Coronavirus, it is even more necessary to practice good hygiene, as in communities and countries like India, viruses can spread quickly.
Symptoms of food poisoning in India
E. Coli is the main offender for food poisoning. Salmonella is high on the list too. Whilst they can vary, these are the main symptoms associated with getting sick in India. We’ve certainly experienced a lot of them!
Note: It is highly unlikely that you will get sick from eating spicy foods in India. The food in India isn’t chilli-hot, contrary to a common belief. They use a lot of spices, but they aren’t hot. Food poisoning in India or anywhere is caused by bacteria and other pathogens, not spicy food.
- Bloating – usually an early sign that something is not right with your stomach.
- Excessive wind and cramps- related to bloating, the bacteria cause a build-up of gas in your stomach and intestines and it needs to come out.
- Fever – some people experience fever chills, similar to if they were getting the flu.
- Diarrhoea – varying degrees depending on the severity, but at its worst, you’ll need to have constant and close access to the cleanest toilet you can find.
- Vomiting – this is a symptom of a really nasty dose of food poisoning, and again depending on severity could last all day/night.
- A general feeling of lethargy, especially if you have diarrhoea and vomiting.
- Loss of appetite will result, which isn’t a bad thing as adding a lot of food into a tummy that is trying to overcome a bug just adds fuel to the fire.
Traveller Tips for avoiding getting sick in India
Like any aspect of travel, everyone has a different opinion and a different level of risk that they are prepared to take. Whilst some travellers will throw caution to the wind in any situation, there are others who are totally risk-averse and will take whatever precaution that is necessary to mitigate the prevailing risks.
Many will sit in the zone somewhere in between and wax and wane with where they put their focus on health-related matters. Everything comes down to personal preferences and values.
And just to prove it’s not just me who thinks you need to be careful, below you’ll hear from nine other travel writers who have at some stage fallen victim to being sick in India. Even with years of experience, it shows that anyone can succumb to the quirks of eating in a different country. Knowing how to avoid getting sick in India is the first step in trying to stay healthy.
Drink filtered water
Sarah from ASocialNomad
I was sick while I travelled in India, not from anything that happened in India, but a lingering stomach bug I caught in Nepal wouldn’t go away. It taught me that you’re responsible for making sure that the water you drink is clean and safe.
I veer away from buying bottled water, because of the plastic waste it creates and the lack of recycling available and use a water filter system from a UK company called the Travel Tap.
Editors note: At Beer and Croissants, we used LifeStraw bottles in India, which are similar and very easy to buy.
Since I got sick, even if the water I’m presented with has been boiled, I’ll put it in my bottle, and run it through the filter. Our filters remove 99.9% of viruses, protozoa, anthrax and pathogens. The filter auto shuts down when full. This lets me drink tap water (and river water when I’m hiking).
My water filter bottle doesn’t keep the water cold, which is also important. Coldwater hitting your stomach when you’re not feeling well is the worst. Keep it at room temperature and you’ll feel much better!
We use and recommend Lifestraw bottles which you can buy here.
Foods to avoid in India – watch out for opened packets of food
Sally from Our 3 kids vs the world
I’ve always been really careful with eating street food and ensuring the kids don’t get food poisoning when travelling. It’s a sure way to ruin your holiday and leaves you open to having to use medical facilities that may be far less than what you are used to in your hometown. Until this one time…..
On our visit to Siem Reap, we visited Banteay Srey, commonly known as the Ladies Temple. We had just finished looking around and stopped for a drink. The lady brought out a bowl of cashews and without thinking I ate a couple, so did my daughter! I’m not sure what possessed me, I wouldn’t normally do this at home when things had not been opened from a pack in front of me.
We went back to our hotel, taking over an hour in the tuk-tuk and then my husband suggested I go for a massage when we returned. I gladly skipped off to the day spa. Halfway through my massage, I started to feel sick. It was the longest massage I’ve ever had and I slowly started to deteriorate.
By the end, I had to run out and back to the room and that was it. My daughter was also sick as well. For the next six hours, we stayed where we were.
Stay and eat with the locals
Natalia from My Trip Hack
Over the span of almost three years in India, I had two food poisonings and they were, alas, both from posh restaurants. So, avoiding street food is not the ultimate solution. In my opinion, you can eat everything if you know the right places.
I always recommend choosing homestays over the hotels to get a deeper insight into the destination you visit. Local people always know the best samosa seller in the city and which foods are better to avoid during certain times.
If you don’t have a possibility to stay with the locals, use one of the Indian smartphone apps to discover the best food places, get reviews and rankings. The reality is that India is becoming fast a digital economy and even “hole in the wall” places are now on sites such as Zomato and Swiggy.
Remember, the best Indian meals are served in India with native spices and ingredients, so don’t miss this experience!
Don’t repeat the same mistakes if you’ve already been sick
Lola from Miss Filatelista
Over the six months I spent travelling in India I was luckily only struck with Delhi Belly twice, but when it hit, it felt deadly! It’s hard to avoid getting sick in India as your body adjusts to a new environment, new spices, and pollution. I got sick both times in Delhi, the second time due to a rookie mistake.
A friend was visiting me so I took them to the two restaurants I loved the most in Delhi, both of which are highly recommended by travellers. The first time I had gotten sick in Delhi I had eaten at both of these places but thought the illness had to be the result of an omelette I had for breakfast from a street vendor.
I blamed the street food and couldn’t imagine the restaurants could be the culprit of my illness. Unfortunately, they were as within hours both my friend and I were violently ill and en route to Agra. I was so sick the second time around I couldn’t even get out of bed to go see the Taj Mahal, something we’d dreamt of doing together.
Luckily we had splurged on a luxury hotel that had a very nice bathroom as that’s where I spent the next three days. The moral of this story? If you get sick in a city never go back to any place where you’d eaten that day and take any restaurant advice with a grain of salt as you never know when Delhi Belly may strike.
The local remedies are the best, activated charcoal pills, lots of water, rehydration packs, and plain rice. When you start to feel a little better indulge in garlic naan to improve your immune system.
General tips for keeping well in India
Rice is a good accompaniment to any Indian dish, yet it is among the foods that get most easily contaminated. It’s a safe measure to avoid rice at buffets, if not at all, and opt for bread instead. The good news is that there are many delicious kinds of bread in India.
Street food is a big no-no. Once again, the hygienic conditions aren’t ideal, and a look at the doughnuts stall will be enough to discourage from eating. Chances are that the oil in which they are fried hasn’t been changed in years.
Other good precautions include protecting your belly by taking strong probiotics pills. Start taking them a week before departure, and take them every day, on an empty stomach, for the duration of the trip. Carry some protein bars and saltines from home. They will come in handy when eating options are scarce.
Tips for minimising the ongoing impact of Delhi Belly
Jub from Tiki Touring Kiwi
After living the nomadic life for four years I succumbed to Delhi Belly in Agra. I didn’t get back to 100% for two weeks or so but could have reduced that time if I wasn’t so nonchalant about the ordeal. Don’t do the following when you’re suffering from the dreaded Delhi Belly:
- Go into denial. The first 12 hours or so I was ignoring the fact I was going to the toilet every hour, pretending it was just a slightly unusual bug or something. Wasting valuable time that could have been spent recovering.
- Dehydrate yourself. Diarrhoea is dehydrating so as painful as it is, you need to keep drinking to stay hydrated. Juice may taste nicer, but pure (bottled) water is a much better option.
- Catch overnight buses. Unfortunately, all the trains were booked out so we had to catch an overnight bus. With no toilet. Luckily I slept 98% of the ride, but there was a lot of worry leading up to the bus ride.
- Sleep in a dorm room. I tried for a couple nights, but then realised it’s not fair to everyone else in the room for a whole host of reasons.
- Feel the need to explore. I hate staying inside all day and really suffered on the first day in Rishikesh for it. A five-kilometre waterfall hike absolutely drained me for a couple days afterwards and no doubt delayed the recovery time. PS if you do go hiking, pack toilet paper
Don’t eat raw fruits and vegetables in India
Mike from 197 Travel Stamps
Whenever we find ourselves surrounded by a completely different culture, we try to resort to what we know. That is the nature of humans. Being in India means being in a completely different environment for most of us.
For this reason, many people order “safe food” like a salad or may just eat an apple instead of eating local food. But, most of the time, the reason for the famous Delhi Belly is the use of contaminated water to wash fruits and vegetables. So you should avoid consuming any raw fruits or vegetables during your time in India.
The rule is to cook it, peel it or leave it. If your food is freshly cooked and hot, most bacteria will be dead and the food should be safe to eat. Fruits like bananas that can be peeled on the spot are fine too. But make sure the peel is still intact. Try to avoid apples or fruits that have been peeled already, like pineapples from street vendors.
Stay away from uncooked food and unclean water
Nicole from Travelgal Nicole
One of the best experiences I had in India was cruising down the Ganges River. We were on open boats and slept under the stars. We’d bank during the day and walk around as the crew cooked our meals.
One of the first things I noticed about the cooking was that they were washing the dishes in the river. There was also a lot of uncooked food being served. I decided then that I would stick to the cooked food such as the roti and curry and stay away from the meat as there was no refrigeration on the boat.
This worked well for me and I came out the other end just fine. Others were very sick for several days after the cruise and spent their time in their rooms close to the toilet! I actually made it through my three-week trip without a problem.
Allan from Live Less Ordinary
I have had Delhi Belly a bunch of times in Asia, where at times it was literally “coming out both ends”, and I can say it is one of the worst feelings in the world. But I was otherwise fortunate in India due to my precautions to avoid getting ill.
The incidence of street food contamination is no higher than restaurant foods, and it is best to go with meals cooked in front of you, rather than pre-cooked food and canteens.
Otherwise, water is the common culprit, and it’s best to avoid uncooked foods, ice cubes, and to keep clean bottled water around to drink, brush your teeth, and to rinse fresh fruits and vegetables. However, some destinations will be higher risk than others, like built-up cities, as you can apparently drink from the taps in the Himalayan foothills (although I wouldn’t risk it).
In general, just be smart, stay within your comfort zone, and stick to the better-documented restaurants and locally trusted vendors where possible.
Don’t use or eat ice in India
Heather from A Conversant Traveller
No matter how hot and sweaty you feel, never EVER have ice in your drink. Even in reputable restaurants, ice is often made from tap water rather than bottled water. Despite all the other precautions you may be taking with your meal, just one tiny ice cube could have you becoming rather too intimately acquainted with the toilet for the foreseeable future.
We found this out the hard way on our honeymoon in Peru and spent a week hugging the toilets in hostels, boats and planes. Not the most romantic of trips, but certainly memorable! If you do nothing else, learn the local phrase for ‘without ice’, it could possibly save your holiday.
Always buy bottled drinks rather than those on tap, and double check the seal hasn’t been broken before you accept it.
Take activated charcoal tablets
Megan from Megan Starr
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of heading to Delhi and a city nearby called Faridabad for a wedding. It had taken me years to get to India because of my claustrophobia, but I was so excited to finally have the chance.
Within a couple of days of arrival, I became violently ill. I assumed it was from the food… but I always had a super strong stomach and everyone that ate the same food as me as well and had no issues (they had issues prior to my arrival). After getting extremely sick, I took some of the activated charcoal tabletsI had with me. I took around ten capsules and never vomited again and felt like a new person by morning.
A few days later, the same thing happened but I swallowed another ten capsules before it got bad and it dissipated. I eventually learned that I had reactions to pollution in the city, not food poisoning. A year after this, I did end up with food poisoning in Germany and swallowed another ten capsules and my body quickly recovered while my partner was sick all day and refused to take any.
I can definitely attribute activated charcoal to helping rid my body of the toxins that crept in without my consent. I highly recommend travellers going to India to take a bottle of this natural activated charcoal with them on their trip.
Essential medical packing list for India
Here are some of the things we did, and took, to prepare us for travelling to India.
- Visited the doctor to check if we needed any additional vaccinations and to get some “just in case” medication in the event of falling ill. These included antibiotics, diarrhoea stoppers and anti-nausea tablets. It also allowed us to discuss whether we would need malaria medication. (We didn’t because the areas we were travelling to weren’t threat areas).
- Started taking probiotics and olive leaf extract tablets (to assist with immunity) about ten days before the trip commenced and continued well after we returned.
We packed the following in our medical kit.
- Lifestraw bottle. We wouldn’t have been without this item. It was the first thing we packed and we didn’t regret it. It saves plastic and you just simply can’t drink the water.
- Buscapan – to help ease stomach cramps.
- Paracetamol and Ibuprofen.
- Natural ginger tablets. There was a time on the train in the south of India where the train was really rocking so ginger tablets help with motion sickness. They are also good for settling an uneasy stomach.
- Hydralytes – to help replace electrolytes and assist with dehydration if necessary, particularly if you have had vomiting or diarrhoea.
- Berocca – sometimes when you are feeling ordinary it just helps to have a lift.
- Hand sanitiserby the bucketload. We used this constantly.
- Anti-bacterial wipes – we also had plenty of these on hand, using them to not only wipe our hands but cutlery, plates, bottle tops and glasses as well.
- Tissues and toilet paper/toilet wipes. We didn’t know where we might be if we were unwell and with toilet paper not common in India, they were valuable items to pack.
- Sunscreen and insect repellent.
- Saline nose spray – pollution is everywhere in India so having this was useful during the day and whilst travelling on the trains and planes as well. It also helps to keep some of the airborne bugs away that cause colds etc.
- Small first aid kit
We also had comprehensive travel insurance to cover us for any issue that might arise.
What I wished we had taken to India
I know you can’t take everything, but in a country like India, I think it’s easier to take what you can. This way you know the brands you are used to, don’t have to search for pharmacies which can be sometimes hard to find, or wonder what you are actually buying.
- Cold and flu tablets– I picked up a terrible sore throat and cold not long after I got off the Golden Chariot. Instead of being able to take a few cold and flu tablets to clear my head I let it go, allowing it to get worse. Trying to discuss your needs with an Indian pharmacist isn’t always the easiest thing and you don’t know the quality of the tablets you ultimately receive.
- Activated charcoal tablets – all the advice we had read prior to going was that these were mainly for treating gas. I now know so many people who swear by them so I would now want to include these as well.
What to do if you do get sick in India
- Drink plenty of water.
- Rest as much as possible.
- Take electrolytes to assist the associated dehydration.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Avoid fatty food and spicy foods. India does have food that isn’t spicy. Plain rice is good if you can find it, but again be aware of what it has been washed in.
- Drink ginger tea and natural ginger tablets.
- Take medication (antibiotics or other prescribed gastro medication if required).
- See a doctor is it doesn’t improve. This is very important. Whilst most food issues will pas in 24-48 hours, some bacterial illnesses can cause severe and ongoing infections and cause ongoing gut health issues.
Following a trip to India
We continued to take probiotics when we got home as our gut was still not back to normal. I had been in India for three and a half weeks, Stirling for one week less, and it still took a week to feel better. This was also despite eating as much fresh food and vegetables as we could to get some of those nutrients back into our system.
Imagine how we might have felt if we hadn’t taken any steps to stay as well as possible!