FAQ: Viruses and Bacteria

Is it safe to drink the water?

One of the oldest pieces of advice people hear about Mexico is “don’t drink the water”. Whether that advice is warranted or not is dependent on the area you are in. Many cities in Mexico have good potable water on tap and you are in no more danger drinking it than you would be at home. But it’s true that water anywhere can contain viruses and bacteria that can make you ill. Therefore to be safe, it’s always best to drink bottled water or purified water and when dining out, ask if the water they use for drinking, ice cubes, and washing food, is ‘agua purificada’ or purified water. Most establishments are not in business to make their customers sick and are very careful about this. Bottled water is widely available in Mexico and is often delivered to your door in 5-gallon ‘garaffons’ for a nominal fee.

What about other uses of water?

Some of the more ridiculous statements you may encounter on the internet are those from people who think Mexican water is like acid. They advise not only to avoid drinking it, but also not to brush your teeth, shower or wash with it, or even allow any to get in your mouth or eyes while showering. Hogwash! Such small amounts of tap water are not going to make you sick. Even if there is some bacteria in the water, it takes a certain amount of it to have any effect on your body and these trace amounts are negligible. If these ridiculous claims were true we all would have been dead many generations ago. So don’t fret about showering or brushing your teeth. You’re more likely to suffer gastric upset from eating overly spicy food than from ingesting a small amount of unpurified water.

Where else might I encounter bacteria or viruses?

Bacteria and viruses can thrive in many places including on your food, on contaminated surfaces, or even in the air. Again, Mexico is not that unique in this respect. These health risks are present everywhere but being a traveler offers more exposure. However, Mexico does present some different environments than you may be used to. It’s not uncommon for example, for sanitary facilities to not live up to their name. Toilet paper may not be available. In fact toilet seats may not be either. If you are not used to it, get in the habit of washing your hands frequently. Carry hand sanitizer and some ’emergency’ toilet paper. Practice good personal hygiene at all times and you will greatly reduce the risk of infection.

Is it safe to eat street food?

As stated previously, being a traveler offers more exposure. Not necessarily because of food-borne bacteria, although that is a real thing. But it’s also because you are more likely to get out of your comfort zone and try different things. For example, I’d never eaten grasshoppers before moving to Mexico, but did not hesitate to try them during the local día de independencia celebration. Did I get sick? Nope. Nor have I ever been sick from eating street food during the more than 5 years I have lived full time in Mexico. Having said that, you could find yourself a little queasy after sampling a number of different, often spicy foods, when your body is not used to processing them. Everything in moderation is good advice.