Getting sick in Mexico is something people don’t write about much. But, every traveler and even residents can be periodically affected. Our U.S. sanitation practices are super vigilant, many often think to the extreme. We have a public health awareness imbedded into our culture. Mr. Clean in everywhere. The New York Times recently published Let’s Dirty Up Our Diets (or there’s nothing wrong with a little good, clean dirt in our food). We don’t have much, if any, and perhaps this is what makes us less resistant and more vulnerable to international travel.
The kind of “being sick” I’m talking about is not the common head cold that we often pick up on airplanes or what’s known in Oaxaca as La Grippa (influenza). I’m talking about the gut-wrenching, vomiting and diarrhea kind of sick that knocks you over and wipes you out, tethering you to a bathroom for 24-36 hours. I’ve been this kind of sick in Mexico even after being here a while. Mexicans get this, too.
I’ve avoided writing about this for the almost six years I’ve had this blog. It’s not a pleasant topic and I don’t want people to think that Mexico is dirty and unsafe. It is just different here. Mexico is not exactly the Third World nor is it the First World. There is incredible prosperity here and also abject poverty. Poverty and lack of public health education breeds disease. In rural public health clinics, even basic hand-washing is not a universal practice.
With lack of infrastructure and poor water quality, everyone who can afford it will drink and cook (and brush teeth) with bottled and purified water. If they can’t afford it and are smart, they will boil water that comes from the local water sources. Tap water is a No-No.
Tourists crave fresh fruits and vegetables. They must be washed very carefully, peeled with clean knives and treated with drops of disinfectant. That means we must know our food preparer, and even then, it’s iffy. Sin lechuga, no lettuce, I tell our workshop participants, unless you are in a highly respected establishment (hotel, restaurant) that caters to tourists, and sometimes … even then … We are particularly vulnerable at street stalls and small cafes where food preparers take the money and also prepare the food without hand washing in between.
Precautions. Let this be a word of warming: Be aware of what you are touching. Those nasty germs travel quickly from hand to mouth (or eyes or nose).
- Buttons on the ATM
- Door handles (in and out of taxis, especially) and hand rails
- Shaking hands (a common respectful practice here)
- Handling money
- Arm rests on buses
- Canned soda tops
- Counters and any other surfaces
- Touching objects at flea markets
- Baggage handlers
- Et cetera! You get the picture.
Now, I’m not trying to scare you. I’m trying to raise your awareness. It’s not possible to avoid touching everything but it IS important to be conscious and diligently keep your Hand Sanitizer handy and use it liberally. Any time you are in a public place you are vulnerable. Until we eat a little more dirt in our food and build up our immune system, I would rely on the hand sanitizer.
Mexico no longer dispenses the anti-bacterial Ciprofloxicino (we know it as Cipro) over the counter. You need a prescription for it. Thus, if you have not come prepared with your own medication that you have gotten in your home country as a precaution, then you must see a local doctor who will prescribe.
Many pharmacies (Ahorro in Oaxaca, 20 de Noviembre a block from the Zocalo or in Puebla, Farmacias Similares, 10 Oriente #4) have a Doc-in-the-Box clinic right next door. Here, you wait in line (often less than 10 minutes) until you can be seen and interviewed about your ailments. You might even be asked to undergo a more thorough examination that includes getting on an exam table, having your blood pressure taken, and listening to your vitals. Only then will the doctor give you a prescription that can be filled immediately.
Now, the trick is, when you are tethered to the toilet, how do you get to the doctor to get an Rx? You might have to send a surrogate. But no doctor will write a script for someone who is not there. So, becoming an actor or actress to be there and translate the symptoms takes on even more import. If a friend or relative can’t do this, then come prepared and bring your own meds with you!
Remedies (for vomiting, diarrhea, stomach ache): THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE–only public health information with dosages prescribed by a Mexican physician!
- Ciprofloxino (antibacterial)—a seven-day series
- Meclizina/piriodoxina—3 pills daily for 2 days for nausea
- Clonixinato delisina butilhioscina, 3 pills daily for 2 days for stomach ache
- Plenty of fluids, preferably electrolytes to stay hydrated
The doctor’s visit will cost about 30 pesos. In today’s dollars, that’s $2.16 USD. Three prescriptions and three bottles of electrolytes cost 240 pesos or $17.29 USD.
This IS something you can deal with if it happens to you. It will set you back a couple of days, but you will recover with good medicine. And, Mexico is worth it!