Getting Sick in India with “Delhi Belly”

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It seems like it’s inevitable – if you’re traveling in India for any prolonged length of time, chances are you are going to get sick.

Very sick.

I knew it was going to happen, but really I wasn’t that concerned. After all, I’ve travelled all over the world and have dealt with “Traveler’s Tummy” many times before. I knew all the rules, lathered up with hand sanitizer before every meal, and carried strong antibiotics – just in case.

Some people go through extreme measures, avoiding all food and drink that isn’t pre-packaged or served from high-end westernized restaurants. That might work for a weeklong jaunt around India’s tourist hotspots, but it would never work on the two month circuit I was on. I knew I would be eating from some pretty dodgy places, and prayed my body would be able to handle it.

You can't survive on packaged food forever!You can't survive on packaged food forever!
You can't survive on packaged food forever!29-Nov-2012 09:12
 

India has the lowest rate of meat consumption in the world, with hundreds of millions of Indians practicing vegetarianism for either religious or economic reasons. There are even fairly extreme forms of “pure” vegetarians, such as the Jains, that can’t consume potatoes, onions, mushrooms, or sprouts.

While I’m decidedly non-veg, I figured it would be a smart idea to go vegetarian during my time in India. With a few exceptions – like seafood in Kerala and an opportunity to sample the famous chicken biryani in Hyderabad – I stuck to it. Sometimes, it wasn’t even an option. There are parts of India, especially holy and sacred areas like the ancient city of Hampi, where meat is strictly forbidden.

Another thing you won’t find in many parts of India is alcohol. Some states ban it outright, and once again it’s a product you won’t find in sacred areas.

I figured abstaining from meat and alcohol would not only be culturally sensitive, it would also keep my body stronger and help ward off food born illness.

It was all great in theory, but still no match for India.

After gaining some confidence during my first few days in Delhi, I was already frequenting street carts and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.

Street eats with Vikas in Delhi.Street eats with Vikas in Delhi.
Street eats with Vikas in Delhi.30-Nov-2012 04:05
 

And then, it happened. Delhi Belly! Or, in this case, Agra Belly.

After a busy day taking in The Taj Mahal and The Agra Fort, I headed back to my guesthouse, sapped of all energy. Soon, a chill came over me and I started shaking. It felt like I was getting the flu. Tired and aching, I crawled under the covers and prayed it would pass overnight. I had reserved an early morning train ticket the next day, heading on to Jaipur, and didn’t want to spend any additional time in Agra.

Around 4am I woke up with a rumble in my stomach. And so began the first trip (of many) to the bathroom. I was glad I had sprung for a room with attached bath – I was definitely getting my money’s worth out of it!

Joney's Place in Agra, where I ate breakfast that day - a possible culprit. Thanks, Lonely Planet!Joney's Place in Agra, where I ate breakfast that day - a possible culprit. Thanks, Lonely Planet!
Joney's Place in Agra, where I ate breakfast that day - a possible culprit. Thanks, Lonely Planet!03-Dec-2012 10:21
 

By 6am I realized I would not make the train. Thinking I would be able to spend another day in Agra recovering, I tried to keep sleeping between the frequent trips to the bathroom.

After stumbling downstairs later in the morning to see if I could extend my stay, the front desk told me they were fully booked. Faced with either finding another guesthouse or leaving Agra, I decided to take my chances, board a bus, and leave this hellhole.

The journey to Jaipur was only 3 hrs, but on the rumbling, packed, local bus with no on-board toilet (a luxury rarely found in India). Luckily, the Immodium did its job, and while my stomach was a-churning, there were no accidents or emergencies.

The local bus to Jaipur.The local bus to Jaipur.
The local bus to Jaipur.04-Dec-2012 14:05
 

The food poisoning I picked up in India was some of the worst I’ve ever experienced. It took weeks before my digestive track was back to normal. To further complicate things, I also came down with a miserable and debilitating cold.

Every long term traveler I spoke to in India had a story like mine. It seems it just goes with the territory. I thought I was prepared, but it does appear “Delhi Belly” is unavoidable.

17 thoughts on “Getting Sick in India with “Delhi Belly”

  1. Zack

    I’m not sure if you still look on here, but I enjoyed reading your post. I’m planning a year long trip to Kolkata to live. I imagine Delhi Belly is probably unavoidable, but are there ways of getting over it quicker? I don’t want to limit myself to western restaurants and cooking just because of Delhi Belly! But I also don’t want to be sick the whole time.

    Reply
    1. Erik Fantasia

      Hi Zack,

      You may want to stock up on antibiotics – azithromycin (z pack) in case you get a serious case of it. I would try and avoid antibiotics unless absolutely required, but if you may thank yourself later if you find yourself with a really bad case. I’ve had to do this a few times while traveling, and it’s almost always cleared things up within 24-48 hours. Have an amazing time in India and don’t worry too much about getting sick!

      Reply
  2. karen

    I did after 3 days in India and its just horrible and 3 weeks on im still not 100% it really wipes you out, drink lots and lots of water, and eat dry bland food when you are up to eating I lived on Naan bread for a few days and water once I started eating

    Reply
  3. Pat

    I can’t believe what I’m reading because my boyfriend and I had also went to Joney’s place from lonely planet and my boyfriend got totally sick! I was okay because I was already in India a month ahead of him. Time to not trust everything in a book… Or just simply don’t underestimate India. Doh!

    Reply
  4. Mary Ann

    This is my third time traveling to Delhi. I got sick just like you described the first two times. Well, I suffered from nausea, vomitting, and severe diarhea. I’ll be in Delhi for two weeks this time. Some added precautions I will take this time are: 1. only water from a bottled SEALED by the manufacturer. None of that home or restaurant “purified” water for me. I won’t even brush my teeth with anything but bottled water this time. 2. NO ice
    3. Not opening mouth AT ALL in shower

    I am not sure what I will allow myself to eat besides bananas and naan. I am VERY paranoid this time around.

    Reply
  5. Grab the Lapels

    I was asked to go on a trip with my college. I would be with one other faculty member and 6 students. They’ve done this trip before, and I’m told we will stay at places run by our college, so I’m not sure what the chances are of getting stick. This post sure has put me off travel, though!

    Reply
  6. Brian

    i have just returned from India. No problems again. if its busy its OK. NEVER eat in a restaurant that is empty. Eat with the locals. before you go lots of natural live yogurt and spice foods. its always worked for me. Oh and plenty of hand sanitize.

    Reply
  7. Kathryn

    I just got back last week from a wonderful trip to India. Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur and the Thar Desert. I wasn’t sick there but I’ve had Delhi Belly for 8 days now. Any suggestions to help me feel better anyone?

    Reply
  8. Stefan

    Hi
    I just returned from eight day mission to India and was fine eating at the homes of the folks and church’s we visited but it wasn’t until they took us to a real dive of a restaurant that my stomach started to turn, the worst part was the 16 hour trip from Dubai to Fort Lauderdale Florida before returning to my home country the Bahamas. Didn’t have lose stomach but rather threw up twice and food caused great stomach stress, had chills and fever and the whole nine. Been home since last night and just getting out of bed almost 24 hours later… feeling better but still wheezy and start to get sick anytime I imagine the curry… what an experience….

    Reply
  9. Alexis Lorenz

    I’m on my third trip to India, and have always been so proud of my strong stomach. Inevitable is the right word for Delhi Belly!!! It has finally got me! I went to the hospital today, and got an injection of Emesil – MAGICAL!!! They also gave me a course of Ornilox and Rabonik Plus, as well as a packet of Enerzal. My Cipro had not knocked whatever was in me, but the doctor’s orders were perfect with these remedies! Also advised is eating yogurt to keep good cultures.

    The perfect food for recovery that all Indians will know is Kitchari with curd. Amazing stuff!!!

    Note on Indian Hospital…Don’t let the bit of griminess fool you. May not be universal, but my experience was excellent. Also – don’t worry if your insurance doesn’t work. My whole trip cost 1,000 rupees, including prescriptions. As far as wait – it may have been because I was a foreigner – but I was in and out very very quickly.

    Reply
  10. Terah and Richard

    Well I am sitting here in Agra now with a very sick fiancé. We have eaten the same foods and only drank water with the seals intact. We are staying at a nice hotel and have forgone our afternoon plans. Not fun for either of us.

    Reply

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