Cuba: Why People Get Ill While Travelling Around This Caribbean Island

Holidays are meant to be a time where you can relax, unwind and enjoy yourself but what happens when it all goes wrong.

No one wants to believe that they will be taken ill on holiday, after all chances are you have saved all year for this break from the rat-race, but unfortunately these things do happen.

Varadero, Havana, Cuba

Image provided by Romulo Ferreira

I think back to my own honeymoon to Cuba.  We spent hours planning our two weeks of ultimate bliss.  We dreamt of lying on the pure white sands of Varadero beach, of walking along the crystal clear shore line watching the tiny little fish swim right up to the edge in search of their daily feast.  Then when the sun set we imagined evenings spent visiting Club Tropicana in Havana and frequenting the same bars as Ernest Hemingway.  What we didn’t envisage is that either one of us would be taken ill.

Ernest Hemingway, Author, Writer, Havana, Cuba

Image provided by Kelsey Ray

I had never travelled outside of Europe before, and to say I was slightly naive was an understatement.  When I think back now, I can see how people easily fall ill if they do not think and prepare for the country they are visiting.  Now I am sometimes quick to judge those that have done something stupid that leads to them waking up in a hospital bed or worst still those that have had to use their medical repatriation cover.  Of course, not everyone takes travel insurance and therefore I can only imagine the worry, concerns and costs involved if you are taken ill whilst abroad without cover.

For me, whilst medical repatriation was not something we needed to consider we did have to discuss the possibility of visiting a doctor or nearby hospital.  Why?  I had been stupid and not changed my daily habits to accommodate the changes in a foreign country.

Why do People Get Sick in Cuba?

Havana, Cuba, Old Town Havana

The old city of Havana. Image provided by Pedro Szekely

Each morning and evening, even though I knew not to drink the water, I washed my teeth in tap water.  Something thousands of people would no doubt do each and every day without consequence, and in fact, Paul was completely unaffected.  For me however, within about 48 hours I become unbelievably ill, unable to live the room for days at a time for fear of being too far away from the bathroom.  Other days I would make it as far as the hotel swimming pool or the beach only to have to rush back to the room for a few hours.

My ideal honeymoon, the holiday of a lifetime that we had spent hours planning, was turning into a complete disaster and neither of us knew why.

I removed eggs, salad and anything else from my diet in the hope that we would magically find the culprit, but nothing changed.  My waist line however was reducing dramatically each day to the point where we began to seriously worry.  In just over a week, I had lost over half a stone (over 3kg) and had become seriously dehydrated.  I had become seriously lethargic and didn’t want to do anything.  How could this be happening to me?

Then, one morning when I finally dragged myself down to breakfast another couple, after hearing about how I was feeling suggested that perhaps it was the water.  When I explained that I had been extremely careful not to drink any from the tap; that I had avoid ice cubes in my drinks and that I had not even had a salad or anything else I thought may have been washed in water, they went on to ask me how I was brushing my teeth.

At no point had I considered the fact that brushing my teeth in tap water could have such a negative effect on me.  After all, I was only rinsing my toothbrush under the tap, I wasn’t consuming any of it, but realistically what did I have to loss.  So for the next 24 hours I brushed my teeth using only bottled water.

Wow, what a difference.  Who would have thought that something so small could make so much difference?

It would appear that not only should you not drink the water in Cuba, you shouldn’t brush your teeth in tap water either.

Havana Cuba, Old Havana, Ernest Hemingway

Image provided by Les Haines

After 48 hours, I was back outside enjoying what was left of my honeymoon.  We took a trip to Havana to explore the vibrant capital, with it’s brightly colour facades on one corner and its crumbling relics on another.  A city famed for rum, cigars, old cars and possibly the best dance display the world has ever seen.

Havana Cuba, Old Havana, Ernest Heminway

Havana, Cuba. Image provided by Pedro Szekely

Luckily, I did not need any medical assistance but since that day, I would never travel without the appropriate cover in place because you simply just do not know.

Have you had any unfortunate experiences while travelling? Maybe you too have been ill in Cuba and had to use a doctor or hospital or perhaps you have travelled without cover but then been taken ill, if so, we would be interested to hear more from you.  

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Cuba, Havana

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