How to Not Get Sick in Mexico

Hotel Xcaret Mexico, Playa del Carmen/Oyster

Everybody has heard the horror stories -- a dream vacation in Mexico turns into a weeklong nightmare after getting sick from eating too many tasty street tacos. Whatever you choose to call it -- turista, Montezuma’s revenge, or traveler’s diarrhea -- you definitely don’t want it. Mexico, muy hermosa as it is, also hosts other lesser-known health hazards. Luckily, you don’t have to be a victim of any of them. Whether it’s your first or fifth time in the country, there are some precautions you can take to prevent a ruined trip. Follow them carefully, and you can be sure your memories will be filled with beautiful sunsets and beaches, not the hotel bathroom.

1. Get vaccinated.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control, vaccinations are a must when traveling. See your doctor to make sure you’re up-to-date on all the standard vaccines, as well as your yearly flu shot. While health care is obtainable in most areas of Mexico, getting any disease while out of your home country is no fun. Luckily, most people, if vaccinated as children, will already be covered. For travelers to Mexico, the CDC also recommends getting vaccines for hepatitis A and typhoid, which are spread through contaminated food and water. Some travelers, depending on the activities they have planned, may also want to consider getting vaccinated for hepatitis B (spread through sexual contact and needles) and malaria (spread through mosquito bites). Check with your doctor if you’re not sure.

2. Eat smart.

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Although vaccines prevent many diseases, they can’t protect you from everything. That’s why what you do is just as important. According to MedicineNet, more than 80 percent of traveler’s diarrhea cases are caused by intestinal bacteria (usually E. coli) from unclean food and water. So, as delicious as those street tamales appear, you may pay the price later if you consume them. Plus, it’s smart to avoid any food that’s been sitting out at room temperature. Other foods to steer clear of include raw eggs, rare fish, unwashed fruits and vegetables, unpasteurized milk, and “bushmeat” (wild game).

3. Drink smart, too.

Jacuzzi Suite at Hotel Riu Palace Mexico/Oyster

Avoid using your hotel faucet, as the water isn’t always safe for travelers. Stick to sealed bottled water (which at most Mexican hotels is readily available, if not free) or disinfected water. Plus, make sure your ice is made from the same H2O. Avoid reconstituted juice, which is made with water, as well as unpasteurized milk. Sodas, hot coffee and tea, and pasteurized milk are all safe. In case you do get sick, your doctor may recommend prescription antibiotics or over-the-counter drugs that you can bring with you.  

4. Bug off.

Mosquito Nets at Haramara Retreat/Oyster

Mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas all exist in Mexico and can carry some nasty diseases, like dengue, leishmaniasis, and Chagas disease. Their symptoms can occasionally be debilitating, but fortunately, they are rare, especially in resort areas. Mexico is also one of the countries where Zika has been recorded. The virus, which causes mild flu-like symptoms in most people, can lead to catastrophic birth defects in babies. That’s why the CDC recommends that pregnant women avoid Mexico entirely. 

Everyone else can help reduce the risk of spreading the disease by covering up. Air-conditioning, fans, and screens can all keep insects away. If you’re exposed to the outdoors at night, protect yourself with a bed net. When you’re awake, choose a bug repellant whose active ingredient is DEET, picaridin, lemon eucalyptus oil, or IR3535 (all of which have been found by the CDC to be effective), and follow the directions. The higher the percentage of the active ingredient, the stronger the protection.

5. Take precautions when exploring outdoors.

Hotel Xcaret Mexico, Playa del Carmen/Oyster

Swimming in cenotes, hiking Mayan ruins, or zip-lining over the jungle -- you can do it all in Mexico, but there are some precautions to follow. Plan ahead and pack the right clothing and items, like bug repellent and sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. If you plan on being in remote areas, consider learning CPR or first aid. It’s no secret that Mexico’s weather is balmy. In Cancun, January temperatures frequently reach 80 degrees. That, of course, could put you at a risk of a heat stroke. That said, staying hydrated (and limiting activity during the hottest part of the day) is crucial. Siesta, anyone?

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that can be found in fresh water, such as lakes, ponds, or rivers, so although the water is warm and tempting, stick to the ocean or your hotel pool, if you can. To avoid getting sick or spreading illness to others, reduce your exposure to germs by washing your hands often, particularly before before eating. Also, avoid contact with people who are sick. Cover your nose and mouth with your sleeve or a tissue while coughing and sneezing.

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