How Not To Get Sick In Mexico

Death by Tacos – that’s what I said to my friend the one time I was so sick in Mexico, after spending the best of a day glued to the toilet. Who knew that the tasty tacos al pastor I had eaten the night before would make me so sick?

You see, Mexico is one of the most charming, interesting, beautiful countries you can hope to visit. Part of its charm lays in the incredible cuisine – Mexican food is simply delicious, full of flavor, and nothing like what you can hope to eat at any Mexican restaurant outside of the country.

However, that very same food (and not only that) has the potential of making you terribly sick – take it from someone who’s been sick in Mexico pretty much on any trip.

Now, if you are planning a trip to this beautiful country, you are probably wondering how not to get sick in Mexico. Having learned from my mistakes, I am here to share a bunch of tips, hoping you don’t fall prey of the terrible Montezuma’s Revenge.

sick in mexico

How You Can Get Sick In Mexico

Most people who get sick in Mexico get traveler’s diarrhea, but this is not the only issue you may have, actually. Let’s look into the issues you may face during your trip.

Traveler’s Diarrhea, AKA Montezuma’s Revenge

This is the most typical health issue you may face in Mexico.

Montezuma’s Revenge is one of the expressions travelers use to refer to Traveler’s Diarrhea (the other is Delhi Belly). This is a very common occurrence in countries where food sanitation and water treatment are below the standards we may be accustomed to.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine

Traveler’s diarrhea occurs within 10 days of travel to an area with poor public hygiene. It’s the most common illness in travelers […] caused by drinking water or eating food that has bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Most traveler’s diarrhea is from bacteria.

Johns Hopkins Medicine

The typical symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea are loose stools and abdominal cramps, but it occasionally may also cause vomiting and fever (among other things). I was lucky enough (sarcasm!) to get all of the above the last time I was in Mexico. Let me just tell you that I was glad I had a bathtub right next to the toilet – you can imagine why.

Traveler’s diarrhea is annoying but easily treated and it typically goes away by itself in a few days. In most cases all you have to do to feel better is drink lots of fluids – water, broth and even flat soda, gatorade or juice will help. In really bad cases, antibiotics are required (guess how I know!).

The whole point however is not how to treat the illness, but how to avoid it in the first place. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Altitude sickness

Mexico City is located at 2,250 meters above sea level – that’s around 7,382 feet. San Cristobal is at 2,200 meters (7,218 feet) above sea level. If you are not accustomed to altitude, and if you are coming from sea level or from a much lower elevation, you may be affected by the altitude. The most common symptom is being short of breath; but other symptoms can be headache; low appetite; nausea; nose bleed.

The best way to fight altitude sickness is to stay hydrated, eat plenty of easy-to-digest carbs and avoid alcohol. You can also take some high altitude relief tablets such as these.

Severe dehydration

A more common occurrence in the sometimes extreme heat of Yucatan. The best way to avoid it is to drink plenty of water – so make sure you are always carrying a bottle with you and sip regularly. I’m a fan of Super Sparrow water bottles as they keep it nice and cold for hours. You can get yours here.

Alcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a serious — and sometimes deadly — consequence of drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Drinking too much too quickly can affect your breathing, heart rate, body temperature and gag reflex and potentially lead to a coma and death.

Mayo Clinic

With all the alcohol easily available in Mexico – wine, beer and obviously tequila and mezcal – chances are you will enjoy a drink or two. But that’s where it should stop, honestly! Alcohol can seriously dehydrate you – especially if you drink so much that you end up vomiting. So try to be cautious about it, and drink lots of water to stay hydrated.

Mexico City food

How Not To Get Sick In Mexico

Now that you know what health issues you may encounter during your trip to Mexico, let’s see how you can avoid them.

Take probiotics

Probiotics will help you cure traveler’s diarrhea but the great news is that they actually help strengthen your immune system, and will help prevent getting sick. I normally start taking probiotic tablets a week before a trip to a country with lower hygiene standards, and continue throughout the trip. Just take a tablet as soon as you wake up, on an empty stomach.

You can buy probiotics here.

Wash your hands

Seems rather obvious, right? Make sure to also take a travel size bottle of hand sanitizer with you, and use it any time you are about to eat but unable to wash your hands with water and soap.

You can buy a small bottle of hand sanitizer here.

Mexican soup

Don’t drink tap water

Water in Mexico is not safe to drink. The water treatment and filtration has improved in recent years but I still recommend avoiding it. In fact, not even locals actually drink it – not unless they have a water filtration system.

I recommend getting a LifeStraw Water Bottle. It comes with a filter, so it makes tap water safe to drink and you don’t have to buy plastic bottles all the time – which is good for the environment, and to save some $$$.

You can get your LifeStraw Bottle here.

When it comes to avoiding tap water, make sure of the following:

  • Use bottled or filtered water to brush your teeth.
  • Don’t open your mouth in the shower – surely you remember what happened to Charlotte in Sex and the City?
  • Peel your fruit – unless you’ve washed it yourself with filtered / bottled water.

Coffee and tea are usually safe to drink because they are prepared with boiling water, and the process of boiling kills the bacteria anyways.

What about ice, then?

Many will tell you to avoid drinks that may have ice altogether, and to stick to wine and beer instead of cocktails. But honestly, Margaritas are so good in Mexico that it’d be a pity not to have any. The good news is that ice in Mexico is usually prepared with filtered water – remember, locals don’t drink tap water either, so chances are they aren’t using it for ice! Obviously, if you want to be extra safe, you may want to avoid ice anyways.

Carefully pick what you eat – and where

Avoiding tap water seems easy enough, but what about food?

Most travelers get sick in Mexico after having eaten contaminated food. Many will think it is only street food that can be contaminated, but in fact, that’s not always the case. I once got terribly sick in Campeche after eating at the restaurant of a fancy hotel!

So here are a few tips to follow:

  • Make sure your meat is cooked through – check your meat before biting into it, and if it is not cooked through send it back! While it is ok and usually safe to have undercooked beef, the same is not the case for chicken and pork. Both times I got sick, it was a result of having had chicken and pork that wasn’t fully cooked through. I remember realizing after I had taken a bite and thinking to myself “I’m going to be sick tomorrow.” Sure enough I was.
  • Look for street vendors where there’s a nice crowd of both locals and tourists – popular places will typically be cooking fresh food all the time to meet requests, so you can be sure the food is freshly prepared.
  • Look for street food stands where there are at least two employees – one cooking and serving the food, one taking payments.
  • When it comes to street food, avoid vendors who brought food they have prepared at home.
San Cristobal Market

What about markets?

Eating at markets during a trip to Mexico is a fun experience – there is so much going on, and so much delicious food. Some will tell you to avoid markets altogether, but it’d be a pity! In general, the same rules you’d use for street food carts are applicable to markets: if there is a nice crowd, go ahead and eat!

If you want to be extra cautious you may want to join a guided market tour – local guides will certainly know where to take you. Market tours are available in many cities in Mexico, so you won’t have troubles finding a good one.

Can you eat salad in Mexico?

If you are not a fan of salads, this is a non-issue. Just don’t eat salad during your trip, and be extra safe. But what if, like me, you truly are a fan of raw veggies? Once again, some will tell you to avoid salad altogether while in Mexico, because it may have been washed in contaminated / unsafe tap water; others will suggest it is actually ok to eat it.

I lean more towards the second. Remember that after all it’s in the restaurants’ best interest to make sure customers are happy and safe, so they will wash their salads with filtered water. In fact, it’s not uncommon to come across a menu that suggests that produce is washed in mild anti bacterial solutions.

San Juan Chamula

What To Do If You Get Sick In Mexico

First of all, don’t panic! Getting sick on the road is actually more common than you know. It is annoying, it can be painful, but it’s hardly anything to worry about.

Now, let’s be practical. Here are a few things you can do that will help you feel better.

Drink lots of fluids

Diarrhea and vomiting will dehydrate you, which in turn will make you lightheaded. Drink lots of water. Flat soda is also helpful, as it will give help you replace sugars. Gatorade is also a great option if you can find it.

Eat plain food

By plain, I really mean plain – think boiled rice with a spoon of olive oil; boiled pasta; boiled potatoes; bread or crackers. A kebab with pork, sausage and bell peppers is definitely not plain.

Take probiotics

Probiotics will help replace the friendly bacteria and prevent and treat diarrhea. Any local pharmacy should carry good probiotic tablets. Get those with the highest percentage of live probiotics. In fact, I recommend making sure you bring them on any trip.

You can buy them here.

Tulum

Take Imodium

I don’t actually encourage you to do this, as imodium blocks the symptoms rather than curing the cause, but if you need to travel it will help by stopping the diarrhea. In fact, this is thing you should include in your first aid kit.

You can get it here.

Call a doctor

If your symptoms are so bad, you should see a doctor. Your travel insurance can put you in touch with the nearest doctor. Alternatively, ask your hotel to call you a doctor (the best hotels usually have a list of go-to doctors for cases like this). If all else fails, visit the nearest Farmacia de Ahorro – it’s a chain of pharmacies in Mexico where next to the pharmacy there is a small clinic with a doctor that visits 24/7 and for free.

Make sure to read my post Why You Need Travel Insurance and get your travel insurance here.

A doctor will be able to advise you on the need to take antibiotics – remember that different antibiotics are suitable to treat different illnesses, so if you do need antibiotics, they must be targeting your sickness or else they will just finish wiping out what remaining good bacteria you have left.

For more information on traveler’s diarrhea and how to treat it, check out the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Final Recommendations

Mexico is an incredible country – take it from someone who’s been there three times, and would gladly go again tomorrow – not even getting sick has put me off it!

If you follow my tips, you will definitely have an incredible time during your trip – eating local delicacies, having a bit of tequila or Mezcal here and there – and easily avoid getting sick in Mexico.

Further Readings

Make sure to read my other posts about Mexico:

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Learn how not to get sick in Mexico - via @clautavani

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