Health in Mexico – Don’t Drink the Water

Staying Healthy When Abroad Requires Effort

No matter where on earth you travel, there are obviously health risks associated with the location, some of which are surprisingly common.  Coming from Canada, this is a fact that is sometimes easy to overlook, as we have relatively few environmental health concerns  (apart from a growing cancer epidemic, like much of the western world.)

Some tourists have a tendency to throw caution to the wind when abroad, and stop following some basic but important rules.  They will eat at any roadside stand they fancy and forget about things like washing their hands frequently.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been known to eat at some rather dodgy-looking places from time-to-time as well (My wife still remembers with horror that little gem of a Chinese food place on King George Highway in Surrey, BC.  So cheap!  And who cares that the basement was flooded?  One word: Buffet)  It’s hard to resist when something looks really good.  But for the sake of food safety, it is better to exercise some restraint.

From time to time, it isn’t unusual to have an upset stomach.  The local bacteria here in Mexico are foreign to our digestive tract, and as a result it isn’t unusual to feel slightly ‘off’ after eating something new.   This normally presents as a bit of a stomach ache, and possibly diarrhea for a day or two.  After a couple of days, you are right back to normal.

There are a few things that travellers can do to try and mitigate the effect of the bacteria, such as frequently washing hands (cysts of Entamoeba can even live under fingernails for up to 45 minutes) and being very careful about your water supply.  Most illnesses of this type are either food or water borne, so being especially clean in those areas is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy while abroad.

The environment itself near Queretaro (like much of Mexico) struggles with proper sanitation.  On a recent drive back to Queretaro from Texcoco (near Mexico City), I observed huge drainage canals, which friends told me carry raw sewage from Mexico City for processing.  The storm sewers all over Queretaro also carry sewage, so when we have heavy rains, it isn’t unusual to see turbid water bubbling out of manhole covers under pressure and flooding the streets.

Another risk factor is the higher temperatures during April and May in Queretaro.  During that time, it is wise to avoid eating street food that isn’t turning over rapidly.  The locals usually have a pretty good idea of what is fresh and what isn’t, so if you see a taco stand that is super busy, that is the place you want to eat too.  The food moves through so quickly, there is no time for bacteria to multiply.

There are many risk factors which contribute to ideal conditions for the growth of bacteria, and there are several types that can cause serious stomach issues.

Preventative Measures

To try and avoid the dreaded stomach problems, I’ve not only been careful to stick to drinking only bottled water, but I even brush my teeth using bottled water.  I’m quite careful about where I eat out too, checking beforehand to see how clean the kitchen prep area is and whether or not the staff wash their hands between handling money and touching food.

grapefruit seed extract for controlling bacteria and parasites
Grapefruit seed extract may be effective in eliminating bad bacteria

There are preventative measures that may help keep bad bacteria under control.  I’ve been using a natural product called NutriBiotic, which contains grapefruit seed extract (GSE).  Drinking eight to ten drops of this liquid in fruit juice apparently acts as an antibacterial agent to cut down the count of gut bacteria that could cause problems.  The abstract of one scholarly article I located about the application of GSE as an antibacterial agent for foodborne illness suggests that it can be quite effective in reducing the count of harmful bacteria.  For me, this seems to have been effective in avoiding serious problems.

Another preventative measure we have been taking is to wash all our fruits and vegetables in an antibacterial wash.  This product is readily available in all pharmacies and grocery stores around Mexico, and even the locals seem to use this product quite extensively to ensure that

Soaking fruit and veggies in an antibacterial wash helps with food safety

harmful bacteria on fresh produce is killed off.  The liquid is a concentrate, and a 10 minute soak in a water solution in the kitchen sink is all that is required to remove potentially dangerous pathogens from your food.

So far, we’ve used the antibacterial solution on everything fresh we’ve bought, including bunches of cilantro, mangoes, carrots and oranges.  Technically, we would probably be safe to forego this process for fruits where we aren’t going to eat the skin, but the product is cheap enough that it just seemed like a good idea to err on the side of caution.  (The 1 litre bottle pictured was $75 pesos at Costco – that’s less than $5 CAD right now, and one capful of product will treat 20 litres of water).

Just one month into our Mexican adventure, we’ve had our first experience with some of the risks and resultant health impacts that sometimes go along with traveling abroad, regardless of the preventative measures taken.

I’ve had bouts with diarrhea a couple of times, in spite of my precautions, but these symptoms usually pass within 24 hours.  My wife, unfortunately, hasn’t been so fortunate.

Box of Enterogermina showing the plastic vials of living bacteria
Vials of Enterogermina contain spores of Bacillus clausii

After battling symptoms for over a week, we decide that she had better consult with a doctor.   Friends who were aware of the problem recommended another product called Enterogermina, which is a liquid probiotic designed to get your gut bacteria back to a normal equilibrium.

Probiotics are a live bacterial culture that is meant to promote the growth of ‘good’ bacteria after a serious bout of diarrhea has devastated the normal wildlife in your digestive tract. Other products like yogurt also contain this useful bacteria, but in far smaller quantities, and thus take a lot longer to build up your beneficial bacteria count.

My wife tried the probiotic treatment for a few days, but her symptoms seemed to be getting worse.

Friends here knew of a doctor who did speak some English, and my wife was able to get an appointment the same day she called. (In Mexico, doctors seldom book far ahead, so getting to see a doctor is usually quick and easy.)

After a very thorough exam, the doctor determined that the problem was related to amoebas, which he said are almost unavoidable here.  These specialized bacteria can be present in food and water, and once into your digestive tract, quickly set up housekeeping and begin to multiply rapidly, eventually leading to amoebic dysentery if left unchecked.  Without corrective measures, this can eventually lead to perforation of the intestines.  Thankfully, it is easily treated with readily available medications.

The doctor prescribed two medications to combat the irritation of the intestines, reduce infection and kill off the parasites.  Neither medication was particularly expensive (by Canadian standards):

  • 100 mg Racecadotrilo (trade names Hidrasec, Tiorfan) – $185 pesos ($12 CAD)
  • 200 mg Nifuroxazida (trade names Loperamide, Eskapar) – $80 pesos ($5 CAD)

The doctor also recommended drinking sports drinks due to their electrolyte content, which helps restore the chemical balance of the digestive tract following such an infection.  The exam lasted about 30 minutes and the doctor’s charge was just $400 pesos ($26 CAD).

On the way home we picked up the medications, as well as some preventative medication (for both of us) to prevent future problems.

Anti-worm medication recommended for use every six months

Vermox is an anthelmintic (anti-worm) medication designed to prevent newly hatched insect larvae (worms) from growing or multiplying in your body.  Due to the hygienic challenges here in Mexico, contracting these kinds of parasites is apparently very easy, so even local residents routinely take this two-tablet remedy every six months to stay on top of the problem.  I figured that the $162-peso-per-dose medication was pretty cheap insurance, so we bought two doses.

Health is an important thing.  Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with saying that “The first wealth is health.”  Taking a few simple precautions goes a long way toward ensuring you stay healthy and happy on your travels.

When on the road, nobody wants to be laid up in a hotel room with stomach problems when they should be out exploring a new city.  If you do run into problems, pharmacists in Mexico are very knowledgeable about over-the-counter remedies, and doctor’s are often co-located with pharmacies to provide quick guidance and a prescription if necessary.

Good health, and good travels!


3 Replies to “Health in Mexico – Don’t Drink the Water”

  1. Wow. Two things. One – we better appreciate our good health here in Canada and Two – I’m coming to Mexico to see doctors and to buy my prescription medication. The cost of such must be about one-tenth of what it is here in Canada.\

    L, we’re thinking about you and hope you are feeling better.

  2. Wonderful post! Are you aware of any local GSE vendors? I am currently several days into a nasty cough in Mexico City. Thanks!

    1. No, sorry. To be honest, I haven’t really looked for grapefruit seed extract locally, as I brought a couple of bottles with me from Canada. If we eat out anywhere and my gut starts to feel dodgy, the first thing I do is take 8 or 9 drops of GSE in water. As a result, I have yet to have any serious problems from food I’ve eaten.

      I am always surprised that for a culture so opened to ‘alternative’ medicine approaches, there seem to be very few vitamin and supplement outlets here in Mexico (at least where we are in Queretaro). It feels like an under-served market. I wonder, though, if the problem is the horrendous import taxes levied by the Mexican government. It seems like imported things take 10-20% import fees, which probably puts these kinds of products out of reach for many.

      Thanks for reading!

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