Mexico City and Your Health
Most people have heard of traveler’s diarrhea, more colorfully known as Montezuma's Revenge, and new arrivals to Mexico City may expect some gastric discomfort in their first weeks and months in the city. However, there are aspects of life in Mexico City that may not be anticipated, and that can have a significant effect on health and well-being, especially for new arrivals...
Mexico City is located 2,250 meters (7,500 feet) above sea level, an elevation considered as “high altitude.” At this level, blood oxygen levels are low enough that many people will suffer to some degree from the effects of “altitude sickness.” Symptoms of altitude sickness include a feeling of ‘air-hunger’ that can lead to hyperventilation, rapid heart rate, a slowing of digestion, headache, dizziness, swelling of hands and feet, and difficulty breathing or sleeping. Many people find that normal daily activities such as climbing a flight of stairs leaves them winded and gasping for breath.
Most people will find these symptoms to be short-lived. Alcohol, sleeping pills, or other depressants will slow the acclimatization process, and should be avoided in the first few days. Because digestion is slowed, light meals will help prevent stomach discomfort. Care should be taken to stay hydrated and to avoid strenuous activities until symptoms have disappeared.
At one time, Mexico City was infamous for being the most polluted city in the world, and despite aggressive programs to improve air quality, Mexico City still experiences many days with air quality readings considered to be unhealthy for sensitive groups. People with respiratory conditions such as asthma or allergies may experience increased symptoms, and throat and eye irritation is possible. Real time air quality readings should be taken into account when planning strenuous outdoor activities. The City of Mexico provides readings on today's air quality in Mexico City and recommendations (in Spanish).
Pollution tends to be worse in February and March, on windless days, and at peak traffic hours. During the rainy summer months, pollution tends to lessen.
Mexico City has a modern water treatment and testing program; however, aging, cracked and contaminated water pipelines and sewers means that water often arrives in a consumer’s home no longer safe to drink. For this reason, the vast majority of Mexico City’s residents drink bottled water and/or have filtration systems installed in their homes. The degree to which residents avoid tap water is a matter of personal preference. Many people use tap water to brush their teeth and rinse their mouths. Many also use tap water to cook when it will be brought to a boil.
To some degree, newcomers should expect to experience mild to moderate gastric symptoms as they become accustomed to different foods, methods of preparation, and local bacteria. Generally speaking, episodes of traveler’s diarrhea are short-lived and should clear up within a few days. Care should be taken to avoid becoming dehydrated. In some cases, symptoms may continue for more than a few days, or may be severe. A doctor should be consulted at the earliest signs of dehydration, ongoing vomiting, bloody stools or high fever, especially in children. A list of English-speaking doctors in Mexico City can be found in our Business Directory.
Avoidance of certain kinds of food is a matter of personal preference; newcomers are sometimes advised to avoid eating fruits or vegetables that they did not personally wash. Generally, restaurants that cater to foreigners will be very conscientious about their food preparation practices, but this cannot be assumed – many a diner has become sick after an expensive meal in a high-end restaurant.
Street food can be very tempting. However, be aware that there is very little regulation of street vendors; very often they will have no access to clean water for food preparation and cleaning of utensils. Before eating from a street vendor, it is important to observe the hygiene practices, the availability of running water, refrigeration, and money handling. It is also important to remember that poor food handling practices make locals sick too – a street vendor with a crowd of loyal patrons is a better choice than one with no line-up.
Most of the prescription medications available in Canada and the US are also available in Mexico City, although often under a different name. Antibiotics are not available without a prescription; however, many pharmacies have an on-staff physician who will evaluate symptoms and write prescriptions if needed for a minimal fee. Be wary of accepting any drug – particularly an over-the-counter drug – that is unfamiliar. Some of these drugs may contain ingredients not approved in the US and Canada, or active ingredients in different dosages than in brands for sale elsewhere. Be sure to carefully read ingredient lists and dosage recommendations.
This page was developed in collaboration with the American School Foundation