Food poisoning and your health insurance in Thailand
If you’re a newcomer to Thailand, you’ll likely find that the food here is very different from what you’re used to back home or in your previous location of residence. It may take a few months for your digestive system to adjust and get acclimated to Thai cuisine, during which time there can be an increased risk of getting sick after eating food that your body is unfamiliar with. This, coupled with the region’s hot climate, means that the likelihood of encountering diseases like tropical food poisoning can be high.
Due to the fairly high occurrence of food poisoning in the region, those living in or travelling to Thailand should remain vigilant to prevent themselves from ingesting contaminated food or water. Here, Pacific Prime Thailand will look at the most common symptoms and causes of food poisoning, what you can do to prevent it, and whether health insurance covers foodborne illness.
Common symptoms to look out for
Food poisoning is an illness caused by ingesting contaminated food containing harmful bacteria, parasites, or viruses mostly found in raw or poorly cooked meat, seafood (including fish), dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and water.
The most common symptoms include diarrhea and abdominal pain. Many people also get symptoms like nausea, vomiting, fever, or headaches. Some people even experience symptoms similar to dysentery, a type of gastroenteritis that often causes severe diarrhea with blood or mucus in the feces.
While most people in Thailand only experience mild symptoms that go away on their own after a few days, some forms of food poisoning can be very serious and even deadly if medical attention is not sought out straight away. Suspect it might be a symptom of a bigger problem? Check out this list of places to go for cancer or health screening.
Note: If you are experiencing vomiting and diarrhea, be sure to rehydrate. Do you find it difficult to hold water in? Pick up some Oral Rehydration packets in a local pharmacy. They should cost no more than THB ฿5 per packet. Also, limit yourself to a maximum of 5 packets per day.
Common causes of food poisoning
One of the most common causes of foodborne disease is harmful bacteria in food. There are two types of bacterial food poisoning: infective and toxic.
- Infective: This occurs when people eat live bacteria in food.
- Toxic: This results from ingesting illness-causing toxins that are produced by certain types of bacteria.
Here are some of the most common bacteria that can cause foodborne illness in Thailand:
Salmonella: The most common way people get salmonella is by consuming meat (e.g. chicken, pork, etc.), eggs, or milk that’s contaminated. Fruits and vegetables that have been fertilized with animal feces can also contain salmonella. The bacteria is killed by cooking and pasteurization.
Staphylococcus: This is a type of bacteria commonly found on the skin and hair of humans and other animals. These bacteria multiply rapidly at room temperature to produce a toxin that causes illness. The most common source of staphylococcus is food that’s been prepared by hand without the need of further cooking (e.g. salads, sandwiches, cold ham). On finding the prevalence of this bacteria in Thailand retail food items, a 2012 study found that 39% of meat, vegetable, seafood, and fermented food samples were contaminated with Staphylococcus.
E coli: Although most forms of E. coli are harmless, some can make you very sick. The worst type is E. coli O157:H7, which causes bloody diarrhea, and in severe cases, kidney failure and even death.
Listeria: This bacteria is unlike many other germs because it can even survive and multiply at cold temperatures, defeating one important food safety defense – refrigeration. It’s often found in untreated water, unpasteurized milk, dairy products made with unpasteurized milk (e.g. cheese), refrigerated meats or meat spreads, and raw sprouts. The bacteria is killed by cooking and pasteurization.
Aside from bacteria, other causative agents like viruses (e.g. norovirus), and chemicals/biotoxins (e.g. insecticides or tetrodotoxin in pufferfish), can also cause food poisoning.
Recovering from food poisoning
In most cases of mild food poisoning, you can self-medicate back to perfect health. However, seek medical help immediately if you suffer from severe symptoms. Blood in your stools or vomit, and high fever lasting for more than an hour are two examples. International health insurance paves the way to a better medical experience at the best private hospitals in Thailand. On top of that, you won’t have to worry about a language barrier getting in the way. See a comparison of public vs. private hospitals in the Land of Smiles.
So, rest your exhausted body and forego your plans for a couple of days. Also, stick to a BRAT diet. It stands for Banana, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast. Though bland, this tried-and-true diet will revitalize your gut flora so you can get back on your feet in no time.
How to prevent food poisoning
Anyone who ingests contaminated food or water can get food poisoning. That being said, there are certain groups of people that are more susceptible to foodborne illness. These include (but are not limited to) older adults, pregnant women, young children, and people with autoimmune disease. If you, or someone you take care of, are included in one of these groups, be sure to follow the below seven steps to food safety:
- When preparing food, be sure to follow this golden rule: boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it!
- If you’re eating out, be cautious of food that’s been stored uncovered, is not properly refrigerated, or has been sitting out for a while (e.g. at a buffet or outdoor food stall).
- Wash your hands with hot, soapy water, or apply disinfectant before touching and eating food.
- Unless you’re absolutely sure it’s been properly prepared, try your best to avoid raw seafood, fruits, and vegetables.
- Try to stick with eating freshly cooked food (e.g. freshly made fried noodles or grilled meat).
- Before ordering any drinks with ice in them, be sure to ask whether the ice is made from tap water. If the answer is “yes”, ask for the drink without ice.
- Take note of the general cleanliness of the restaurant and its staff before eating there.
Food poisoning and your Thailand health insurance policy
Unfortunately, even the most vigilant and hygienic person can get food poisoning. While most symptoms of foodborne illness will go away on their own after a short period of time, if symptoms continue and/or become severe (e.g. blood in stool), it is important that you seek medical attention straight away.
Private medical care for food-related illness can be very expensive, especially if you need to stay at the hospital overnight. Are you an expat in the Land of Smiles? Check out these tips for the cost of living in Thailand. If you have a Thailand health insurance policy, the good news here is that it will most likely cover care for foodborne illness, provided that you were not doing something illegal that led to you being poisoned.
Of course, international health insurance in Thailand comes with different coverage levels, benefits, and exclusions, which is why talking to an expert broker like Pacific Prime Thailand can give you the extra peace of mind you need.
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