It’s one of the most common pieces of advice given to people leaving the UK to travel on business or for a holiday – avoid drinking the tap water and only drink bottled. But is this overcautious? It’s certainly wise to avoid drinking tap water in developing countries where hygiene and sanitation standards do not come up to the same levels we expect in the UK. All sorts of nasty conditions from cholera to dysentery can be caught from impure drinking water in hot countries in Asia or Africa, but what if you are sticking to Europe for your travel?
Although travellers to Portugal, Spain or Greece are routinely told not to drink the water and to buy bottled instead, the water in all countries of Western Europe meet minimum EU standards and are considered safe to drink. However, our bodies are sensitive, and it is true that some people find it hard to adjust to the different mineral and chemical contents in water overseas – it’s just not what we’re used to. Water may have higher levels of added fluoride or it might just taste very different to what comes out of the taps at home. For this reason, many travellers prefer to stick to bottled water, and this can often be bought very cheaply in large supermarkets.
The countries of Eastern Europe are still playing catch up when it comes to improving standards to those we enjoy in the western half of the continent, and you are advised on avoiding the tap water in all of Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, Croatia and Cyprus. The water in these countries varies hugely in quality; in large cities the water supply might be perfectly suitable for drinking, but in rural areas the quality may be poorer. Don’t take the risk, stick to bottled water or if you have no alternative, boil water before drinking.
What Happens If I Get Ill?
Even if you’ve tried your best to avoid drinking tap water, sometimes the worst happens and you end up getting sick. Luckily for most people this just means a mild case of vomiting and diarrhoea which can be treated with some over the counter medication from the pharmacist. If you’re not feeling better in a day or so, or if the person who has fallen ill is very young, elderly or has underlying medical problems, seek medical attention. Use your EHIC cover to access state medical care, and this will mean you are charged at the same rate as local people, or receive your care free of charge. EHIC will cover you to see a GP or attend a drop-in health centre in the case of less serious illnesses, or for an A&E visit and hospital admission should you fall more seriously ill. Not all European countries are covered by EHIC, and if you are travelling to many of the former Soviet states, or further afield to Azerbijan, Turkey or Israel, you will require additional travel insurance to cover your medical needs.