On my first trip to Jamaica, I religiously avoided drinking the water. Instead, I overdosed on caffeine with Coca Colas at every meal. Nothing fought the heat like an ice cold Coke, sometimes two. On the morning of my second day, as I met with my boss to debrief before our meetings, he casually asked "Do you always drink soda for breakfast?"

"Oh no," I replied, "It's just because I'm not drinking the water. I don't want to get sick."

Suppressing a smile, he leaned over and tapped the icy glass. "You know what's in ice, right? And what's melting in your glass and mixing with your soda?"

Sure enough, the next morning as I struggled with the violent effects of my first bout of "traveler's sickness," I learned a cardinal rule of traveling. Become savvy about all the ways you might possibly imbibe water in your travels, and you'll be much happier and healthier.

Most people have heard the adage "Don't Drink the Water!" when planning trips to certain foreign destinations. This is typically followed closely by another common travel suggestion – "Stay Hydrated!" It may sound tricky, but travelers can successfully navigate foreign waters (staying healthy and hydrated) with a bit advance research, preparation, and careful packing.

How do I know if I can drink the water?
How can a traveler tell if there's something in the water that's likely to make her sick? Contamination of drinking water can come from several sources "“ water may not be chlorinated, for example, or general sanitation may be lacking. Viruses, bacteria, and parasites are all potential risks. A little research, with sources like the Center for Disease Control's Travel Reference Site, provides important information on water and food born illnesses and safety in specific destinations. Before departing, travelers are well advised to do a bit of research.

However, when in doubt, drink bottled water or choose methods to treat tap water before drinking. The consequences of drinking contaminated water can devastate a vacation, causing vomiting, diarrhea, and other uncomfortable conditions. The good news is that this is easily avoidable.

If I can't drink the water, what can I do to make it safe?
An easy alternative to treating your water is drinking bottled water from a trustworthy source. Bottled water should be sealed. However, bottled water can be expensive, and hard to find in some remote destinations. Other beverages, such as soda, are often readily available. Avoid drinks with caffeine, as they will work against you in your mission to stay hydrated. It's important to have at least one backup method ready to treat drinking water. The most common approaches are boiling, filtering, and chemically treating water.

Boiling water is the most reliable way to disinfect it and ensure that it is safe to drink. Water should be boiled in a sterilized container, vigorously for at least one minute. At higher altitudes, water must be boiled for three minutes.

When boiling water is not an option, consider using a portable water filter. These are conveniently located directly in some models of water bottle. Others are in the form of strainers that can be placed between running water and your drinking cup. With filtering, it is important to note that the process is not guaranteed to remove all contaminants from water. It is recommended that filtering be paired with a chemical disinfectant to ensure truly safe drinking water. Filtration does remove sediments from water, however, and is often used by travelers who faithfully disinfect their water with chemicals such as iodine.

Chemical Disinfectant
Iodine is the most common form of chemical treatment for water. Iodine is available in tablet, liquid, and crystal forms. It is important with chemical treatments to follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully. It is particularly important to pay attention to the "standing time" required for the method you used. Standing time refers to the amount of time between when you add the tablet/drops/crystals and when you drink the water. Increasing the standing time above the recommended is suggested to allow the treatment to function at maximum effectiveness.

Are there any other things I should know?
As illustrated by my Jamaican misadventure, being dedicated about the water you drink is not enough. Drinking water is not the only way that travelers can come into contact with contaminated water.

Use common sense:
– Consume drinks without ice.
– Brush your teeth and wash your face with treated water.
– Beware of foods, such as fresh fruits or vegetables, which may have been rinsed with bad water. Always peel off the skin, or avoid these altogether.

Staying hydrated is an important part of staying healthy while traveling. In addition to getting enough water, travelers need to ensure that the water they are drinking is safe. Advance planning and the use of common sense can help you stay both hydrated and healthy while on your vacation.


Written by Elizabeth Hooper