We all like to eat well, but what happens when you get on the wrong side of the food chain? Words by Siân Kavanagh

 

It all starts with a sudden gurgle, somewhere deep within your stomach, as a film of sweat develops over your body. You don’t think too much at first, until you immediately know that the only place you’re going to be for the next couple of hours is the bathroom. Get your phone charged and limber up, you’re going on one of the most common adventures in Vietnam; food poisoning.

 

It’s not fun, and it’s certainly not glamorous, but it’s a very real part of living in Vietnam. Food poisoning occurs when you have ingested certain pathogens that cause disruption to your digestive system, also known as Traveller’s Diarrhoea (even when you are a native or local to the country where you contract it).

 

The Source

 

There are three types of micro-organisms that can cause common digestive trouble; viruses, bacteria and parasites. Each micro-organism affects the body and must be treated accordingly, and it is more often than not impossible to self-diagnose which of these is affecting you.

 

Depending on the source of the digestive trouble, the pathogen that has caused these symptoms could have been incubating for any period of time from a few hours to over a week, and infections with pathogens that take longer to manifest symptoms make up 10% of all food poisoning cases, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

 

Here are the top tips for understanding and recovering from food poisoning:

 

1) Know Your Symptoms. “The two most common symptoms of food poisoning are diarrhoea and abdominal pain, though these two symptoms are not exclusively indicators of food poisoning,” says Dr. Masato Okuda, the gastroenterology specialist at Family Medical Practice. Other frequent symptoms of food poisoning include fever, nausea and vomiting. There are some extremely infrequent symptoms of food poisoning, including body paralysis caused by Guillain-Barre syndrome or bacterial reactive arthritis or severe joint pain, also identified as Reiter’s syndrome.

 

2) Find Your Balance of Caution and Adventure. Unfortunately, there are very few foolproof ways to ensure you never fall victim to digestive troubles, but there are measures you can take. Dr. Masato recommends being aware of where you consume food and drink, and how it is prepared and handled, as most cases of food poisoning are caused by poor hygiene practices.

 

3) Preventative Self Medication. Depending on the type of antibiotic used, it is possible to successfully prevent some forms of Traveller’s Diarrhoea but it is not recommended to do so without consulting a medical professional first. Even so, bacteria evolve and develop different characteristics over time. This means that bacteria can become resistant to certain antibiotics, especially when they are self-prescribed, overused, or used to treat another issue such as a viral infection or parasite. It is also possible to prophylactically take Pepto-Bismol, as the key ingredient is bismuth subsalicylate (BSS). When taken daily in either 2oz of liquid or two chewable tablets, four times a day, BSS has been known to reduce the occurrence of Traveller’s Diarrhoea by 50% from studies based in Mexico.

 

4) Viral vs. Bacteria vs. Parasites. By understanding exactly what microorganism has made its way into your body you can also help determine the best routes for medical follow up.

 

— Viral infections will typically result relatively mild symptoms compared to other types of infection, and the body will likely heal by itself. Viral infections are typically less common, only causing about 5% to 8% of reported cases.

 

— Bacterial infections can cause more severe symptoms than viral infections, especially abdominal pain and diarrhoea, but the symptoms should last only last about one week. Bacteria are one of the most common causes of Traveller’s Diarrhoea and food poisoning, accounting for 80 to 90% of cases reported.

 

— Parasitic symptoms can vary from mild to severe, but the key difference for seeing if you have a parasite is the amount of time you are ill, as parasites can cause pain and diarrhoea for anywhere from two weeks to monthsat a time.

 

5) Best Routes For Recovery. Recovery from food poisoning or Traveller’s Diarrhoea again depends on the type of pathogen that has caused you to become ill. “Hydration is the key to a successful recovery from diarrhoea, and if you are passing enough urine there is no need to worry about hydration,” recommends Dr. Masato. Sufficient hydration is doubly important for young children. If you have been in severe pain or experiencing symptoms for over a week, then it is time to consult a medical professional about how to further aid recovery back to full health. Remember the following:

 

— Viral infections can only be treated by allowing the body to heal itself, and alleviate the symptoms themselves such as using fever reducers or painkillers. Imodium can be used; however diarrhoea is a defense mechanism of your intestines to help them repair, and to overuse Imodium can be just as disruptive as letting your body use its own mechanism.

 

— Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics though there is no guarantee that the bacteria that has infected your digestive system isn’t resistant to the drugs. It is also possible to treat the symptoms for a bacterial infection as well.

 

— Parasitic infections are a lot less common than bacterial infections and demand treatment on a case-by-case basis.

 

Statistically speaking at least 70% of us will suffer from some form of Traveller’s Diarrhoea (yes even if we live here) or food poisoning, and it’s not the end of the world. Though there are reported cases of parasites, which are somewhat frequent in Southeast Asia, and other severe diseases, the best course of action is to talk to a medical professional. If it’s your run-of-the-mill diarrhoea and abdominal cramps, make sure to stay hydrated, have plenty of rest, and know that this too shall pass.

 

Sian Kavanagh

A Liverpool-born writer who has lived in Amsterdam, Oregon, US and now Ho Chi Minh City, Sian recently graduated with a BA in Journalism from the University of Oregon. When she's not busy with Word Magazine, Siân is volunteering in media production for the Vinacapital Foundation, and is passionate about salsa dancing, exploring Vietnamese cuisine, and hanging out with her 11-year-old French Bulldog.

Website: www.sianjkavanagh.com

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