Many of the questions I get about travelling to India are about health issues. Should I only drink bottled water? Should I take anti-malarials? What if I get sick?
While travelling in India, you’ll need to take a few more health precautions that you would at home, but there’s no need to be paranoid. Do expect to get a stomach upset at least once and consider yourself lucky if you don’t!
You can stay healthy by following these tips:
Get your shots: Before leaving for India, make sure you're up to date with your vaccinations for diphtheria and tetanus (recommended every 10 years for adults). Shots for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid are also advisable. Some vaccines take time to ‘kick in’ so make sure you plan ahead before your trip.
Drink only bottled or filtered water: Tap water is not safe to drink in India so make sure you drink only bottled or filtered water. Most households in India (as well as hotels and restaurants) have a water filter system installed in the kitchen which purifies tap water. This is perfectly safe to drink, as long as the filter system is maintained properly. In a hot climate like India’s, you’ll have to drink a lot more water than you’re used to, to avoid dehydration. Aim for at least 2 litres a day. You’ll notice tender coconuts for sale on almost every street corner, especially in South India. Coconut water is an ideal drink to keep hydrated: it contains sugars, fibre and protein and provides vitamins, antioxidants and minerals.
Use mosquito repellent: Illnesses like malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya are prevalent in India, especially during the monsoon season (June to September in most parts of India). There are no vaccines for these illnesses which are all transmitted by mosquitoes. Anti-malarial drugs can be taken as a precaution against malaria, but long-term use of these drugs is not recommended. The best approach is to try to prevent mosquito bites as much as possible. While sleeping, use a mosquito net or a plug-in anti-mosquito device. Mosquitoes are also around during the day, so use a lotion repellent. Local brands of repellents like Odomos are readily available, very cheap and often smell better than foreign brands. Mosquito nets and repellent devices are also easy to find locally. I would recommend buying all of these products in India instead of bringing them with you from home. If you develop a sudden high fever, seek medical attention immediately.
How to recover from Delhi Belly: Stomach upsets accompanied by diarrhea (or ‘loose motions’ in local parlance) and/or vomiting are very common among travellers to India and you’re bound to be hit by this sooner or later! It’s vitally important to replace any lost fluids by drinking a lot of liquids to avoid dehydration. Oral rehydration salts (Electral) are available in any pharmacy and when mixed with water, help the body rehydrate and recover quickly. (Coconut water is good too – see above.) Symptoms usually subside after 2 or 3 days – if this takes longer, seek medical help.
Watch what you eat: To avoid stomach bugs, you need to be careful about what and where you eat. Only eat in popular restaurants with a high turnover where you can be sure the food is made fresh. Avoid roadside stalls or food that has been sitting out for a long time. The other usual advice is to avoid ice, peel fruit and pass up salads. However, don’t stop eating fresh fruit and vegetables altogether, or you’ll be missing out on vitamins and anti-oxidants which strengthen your immune system.
Wash your hands: Good hygiene is also key to not getting sick. Though ‘hand wash’ sinks are found in every restaurant and eatery, soap is not always available. Carry your own, or a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
Get insured. Some long-term travellers do not take out expensive travel insurance for a trip to India because the cost of healthcare here is cheap and the care given in private hospitals and clinics is of a high quality. But I have heard of heart-breaking cases of accidents (an Australian on a motorcycle had a night time collision with a cow and suffered serious head injuries; an American trekking in Ladakh fell down a cliff and needed facial reconstruction surgery) which involved long-term care and rehabilitation. You never know what can go wrong and for that reason, it’s best to get a good quality health and travel insurance which includes medical evacuation.
Do you have other tips? Do share them!