Enjoying a cocktail or a beer on holidays is something many of us do. Particularly when visiting destinations like Thailand and Bali, which lend themselves to relaxing poolside with a drink in hand.

But it's important to be smart about where you get your alcoholic beverages from. An unfortunate reality in these countries is that alcohol production is often unregulated. In Bali, this moonshine is called 'arak'. In Thailand, it's 'ya dong'. While in India, it's referred to as 'tharra'.

This leaves an opportunity for counterfeit and illicitly produced alcohol to end up for sale. As a result, the past few years have seen methanol poisonings on the rise, with some resulting in the deaths of unsuspecting travellers.

Here’s what you need to know about avoiding methanol poisoning and understanding what it is when travelling.

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alcoholic beverages poolside

Look after your health when travelling. See our blog for more medical tips to help you stay safe.

Methanol is a commonly used and widely available chemical. It's a type of alcohol, just like ethanol. While ethanol is the main alcohol found in proprietary drinks, methanol is toxic and therefore not utilised. Both look the same, with methanol having a very distinctive odour.

You’ll find methanol in household products such as varnish, windscreen wash and antifreeze. It’s also used to make plastics and paint, and can even be used as a biofuel for model airplanes.

It's definitely unsuitable for human consumption. Even drinking a small amount can lead to toxicity and death as a result of methanol poisoning.

If ingested by humans, it is highly toxic and can lead to blindness, coma, and in severe cases, death.

As always, you should consider consulting with a medical professional if you suspect methanol poisoning or feel unwell while on holidays. You can reach out to our Emergency Assistance team if you need help finding a nearby medical centre.  

Most cases of methanol poisoning are a result of drinking home-brewed alcohol. Methanol is either deliberately added to strengthen informally produced alcohol, or it is left in the brew because of poor distillation practices.

Adding methanol to drinks is a cost-saving practice that allows sellers to peddle strong alcoholic drinks for a much lower price. Imported commercial spirits can be expensive for local businesses, so homemade alcohol allows them to sell drinks for a fraction of the price.

Often advertised as 'gin' or 'vodka', methanol-based drinks can be sold with sugary mixers and juices to hide the taste. Luring in foreign holidaymakers, these dangerous drinks are often served in colourful buckets or in cocktails. 

Methanol can also be found in counterfeit bottles of spirits. What might look like a brand name spirit might actually be a rip-off bottle that contains the toxic chemical. Like a fake handbag, these counterfeit bottles can look exactly like the real deal.

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Methanol poisoning isn't the only thing you need to watch out for in places like Indonesia and Thailand. Find out how to avoid the dreaded Bali belly

As menthol is often consumed alongside alcohol, initial symptoms are often confused with feeling tipsy or being drunk. In addition, any ethanol co-ingested may initially be protective against methanol toxicity. This could be drowsiness, feeling unsteady, or feeling disinhibited. After a period of time, an individual suffering from methanol poisoning may experience:

  • Fading in and out of consciousness
  • Progressive visual disturbance
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vertigo

If left untreated, breathlessness and hyperventilation might occur. This can be followed by disturbances in vision, including blindness. Long-term effects can include permanent vision problems, blindness, and kidney failure.

In severe cases, coma, convulsions, respiratory issues and death might ensue.

It is extremely important you seek medical attention immediately if you suspect methanol poisoning. Our 24/7 Emergency Assistance team can help you find a nearby medical facility while overseas.

colourful fruit cocktails

Travelling to Asia may mean you need to stay more vigilant about what you eat and drink. Check out these important health tips!

  • Only buy alcohol from reputable venues and shops.
  • Avoid pre-mixed drinks that have not been poured in front of you. This includes any ‘bucket cocktails’ or colourful ‘ready-to-drink’ creations.
  • Avoid buying from market stalls or informal stores.
  • If the price of your drink is too good to be true, then it probably is. Imported spirits can be pricey in places like Bali and Thailand. If your drink or bottle of spirits is much cheaper than what you would pay at home, it is most likely a home brew.
  • Check that the seals are intact and that the label is free from spelling errors or poor labeling.
  • Learn to recognise the signs and symptoms of methanol poisoning and seek help right away. Listen to your body and seek help immediately.
  • Never leave your drink unattended.

If you think you or someone you know has methanol poisoning, seek medical help immediately.

Methanol poisoning is often treated by administering ethanol, with the addition of other complex therapies. The sooner the poisoning is treated, the better the outcome.

For more medical tips when travelling, be sure to check out our blog

Consider protecting yourself and your trip with Cover-More travel insuranceGet a free quote online!

More medical tips for travel:

  1. How to avoid measles when travelling
  2. What is Malaria and how to avoid it
  3. Bali belly – What it is and how to avoid it
  4. Health tips for travelling in Asia
  5. Rabies - Symptoms and prevention

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