Everything you need to know about Bali belly: Before, during and after

Bali belly is a sickness that comes for many weak-stomached Westerners 🙊

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Indonesia’s most popular tourist destination, Bali, is renowned for many things. Incredible natural scenery, beautiful beaches, a unique and immersive culture, exceptional cuisine and generous, kind locals with an endearing patience for the thousands of foreigners who visit the island every year.

There is another less fortunate affliction that shares synonymity with Bali. A sickness that comes for many weak-stomached Westerners, bringing digestive unrest and abdominal turmoil to an otherwise picturesque holiday. The colloquially crowned “Bali belly”.  

What is Bali Belly?

While it’s a convenient example of alliteration, Bali belly is actually just traveller’s diarrhoea: a common illness that regularly affects tourists. It’s usually caused by consuming bacteria (like E. coli) found in local water or contaminated food. Travellers tend to have their stools loosened within a week of arriving, with symptoms appearing between two and five hours after eating affected food.

What are the symptoms of Bali Belly?

Bali belly’s symptoms are cut from the same soiled cloth as a case of gastro back home: stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, muscular aches and mild fever. Everything is a little more liquidy, gas is a little more dangerous and you’re about to reach a new level of intimacy with your toilet bowl.  

While it’s unpleasant, Bali belly is kind of a rite of passage. Few Westerners visit the Island of the Gods and avoid it entirely. And if we’re being really honest, there is something humbling about losing control of your bowel movements in a foreign country (granted it doesn’t end in hospitalisation).  

That’s not to say you can’t lessen the severity of Bali belly or try your best to avoid it. Allow us, a team with our fair share of wondering whether we’re going to make it to the toilet in time, flush you with a few tips before your trip to Bali.  

Photo by cottonbro studio

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Avoiding Bali belly

It goes without saying that we want you to not only have as much fun as possible wherever in the world you are heading, but remain as healthy as possible while doing so. That said, some of the more stringent ways to avoid Bali belly inadvertently avoid fun and cultural experiences. It can also cast aspersions on local practices and ways of living, which is not something that we’re about. So, look after yourself! But remember to be respectful of the people who live in the place you’re visiting and keep in mind the important contribution you can make to local economies when travelling.  

Wash your hands regularly and use sanitiser

Hopefully, you don’t need to be schooled on personal hygiene. So just consider this an extra reminder to be more vigilant with your hand washing, including before you eat, after handling money and, the big one, after using the toilet. Hand sanitiser is another no-brainer. It provides an extra layer of protection against bacteria and viruses and might save you from the horrors of an empty soap dispenser in a public restroom.  

Don’t drink tap water

As much as ploughing through plastic hurts our feelings, drinking bottled water is the safest way to avoid Bali belly. That includes at warungs and restaurants. Even though Balinese drink filtered or boiled water, there’s always a risk, so just stick to the bottled stuff. As for ice, there are government regulations in place to ensure all ice is made with filtered water at food and beverage establishments, meaning you can relax on the cubes melting in your drink on a night out. Do avoid ice when eating your favourite street food.

You also need to be careful not to swallow water when doing other holiday activities. Keep your mouth closed in the shower and pool, and use bottled water to rinse after brushing your teeth. You should also wash any fruit and vegetables you buy with bottled or boiled water and be aware of eating from plates that haven’t been properly dried. Even better, is buying fruit or vegetables that you can peel yourself. Unfortunately, a few drops of water is sometimes all it takes for things to go belly up.

Photo by Gemma Clarke

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Go with your gut on street food

We could not tell you in good conscience to avoid eating at street vendors entirely. Doing that might rob you of experiencing your first bakso or eating the best nasi campur of your whole trip. Plus, how boring would it be if you ate all your meals in your hotel’s restaurant or only went to the most popular restaurants during your trip?

There are ways to be cautious about tucking into a delicious street meal though. Firstly, follow the traveller’s rule and eat at places that are crowded and where the locals are flocking to eat. It’s a sure sign that the food is good and fresh. If you’re still a bit nervous, look for vendors that you can watch cook your meal and aim to hit them first thing in the morning, or during the dinner rush.  

Take a preventative supplement like Travelan

Travelan is a natural probiotic and over-the-counter product that helps reduce the risk of traveller’s diarrhoea. You can start taking it two weeks before your trip to help your guts get into top shape and stock up on bacteria-fighting antibodies before you arrive.  

What to do if you get Bali belly

So you’ve been struck down with a (hopefully not severe) case of Bali belly. Firstly, welcome to the club and secondly, we’ve got you. Here’s what you can do to soften the blow.  

Take activated charcoal tablets

You’ll want to stock up on these before you leave or when you arrive so you can take them as soon as symptoms of Bali belly start rumbling. We recommend Norit, a local charcoal tablet stocked in most supermarkets, pharmacies (apotek in Indonesian) and mini-marts like Circle K. Charcoal may help to absorb toxins in your body and it may lessen the severity of Bali belly and recovery time. A word of warning though, these tablets often sell out in busy places, so if you don’t want to run the gauntlet, take some with you.  

Photo by Uwe Aranas

Stay hydrated

Yes, we know this is hard when you’re struggling to keep anything down or in, but it’s extremely important to stay hydrated. Bali belly can be fatal and that is largely due to dehydration.

Level up your hydration efforts if you get sick: drink coconut water, add salt or lime to your water for extra minerals and power through the gift that is Pocari Sweat, a popular drink in Bali packed with electrolytes. Remember sugary drinks can worsen dehydration. You can also follow the locals' lead and try a tea like ginger and turmeric with honey and coconut oil, or peppermint and ginger.  

If you really can’t keep your liquids in, don’t hesitate to hit up an intravenous rehydration service like The Dose or Prime Plus Medical. Their IV infusions are administered by medical professionals and they can bring the service to your accommodation.

Don’t put off seeing a doctor or going to the hospital if symptoms are worsening or if you are worried about dehydration. And seek immediate medical assistance if there is blood or mucus in your stools, severe abdominal pain or prolonged high fever.  

Avoid alcohol, caffeine and rich foods

We’d be surprised if you were craving a Bintang while trying to get through an episode of Bali belly. But a gentle reminder to skip the booze while you’re getting through this explosive time. The same goes for caffeinated drinks, dairy products and spicy or rich foods. All of these things can cause further bloating, dehydration and stomach unrest.

While you’re waiting for things to die down, stick to plain foods: porridge, vegetable broths or soups (a good excuse to eat heaps of cap cay), bananas, plain rice, bread and crackers. When symptoms are less severe, fresh juice (of which there is no shortage of in Bali) is another good option.  

Rest up

Spending half your holiday in your hotel room (or stuck on the toilet) isn’t ideal. But you’ll need a solid chunk of rest and rehydration to get out the other side of this. Get the aircon pumping and find a good series to watch in bed until you’re back on your feet.  

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