The issue of how to stay healthy on vacation or on a long journey is often foremost in our minds (it’s right up there with how to stay safe). Those of us who travel often have learned some basic tricks on coping with illness or discomfort when there is no medical help around or when it’s simply not serious enough to warrant a doctor’s visit.
In this article I’ll share some of those tips with you – they’ve served me well and are based on both my experience and online research.
DISCLAIMER: I am a writer, not a doctor, and NONE OF THIS IS MEDICAL ADVICE. I have traveled for 50 years to nearly 100 countries and have gained some experience on what works or doesn’t work for me. I share that experience in this series of articles, which can be your starting point for research. But when it comes to actual prevention, treatment and care, ALWAYS consult a qualified medical practitioner.
Health and travel prep: an ounce of prevention…
Travel-proofing your health is a good place to start when you’re planning a trip overseas. If you’re headed for a country with a culture similar to your own, you’ll probably have few adjustments to make. But if you’re going somewhere where the food, hygiene, and customs are different, your health may be the victim so best to be prepared.
Think about it − you’ll be pulling and lifting luggage, climbing stairs or hiking, walking a lot, and possibly overindulging. So don’t wait until the last minute to get your body ready for your trip (I’ve got a few tips here to help with that).
Here are a few things you can do to prepare yourself for healthy travel.
Do some research beforehand
A number of countries have their own health requirements and won’t let you in unless you comply.
Usually, these involve some sort of travel vaccinations, such as cholera or yellow fever and most recently, Covid-19. In some cases, countries require disclosure, such as of HIV status, for example, although many HIV-positive people simply choose to boycott those countries. (For great advice on what vaccinations you need, see the CDC’s Travel Vaccinations website.)
If you want to know whether your destination has vaccination requirements, this CDC travel page has everything you need. But keep checking, because things change quickly. Covid-19 rules often changed overnight, stranding travelers (who probably should not have been traveling in the first place) far from home.
Equip yourself with emergency numbers before you go: your embassy, any local contacts your friends might have, and possibly the name of a local English-speaking doctor. Most embassy websites have a 24-hour emergency hotline you can call, or post medical resources such as emergency numbers and lists of local medical practitioners. You’re better off getting this information before you leave rather than in the middle of an emergency with lousy or no internet!
And finally, and this is the advantage of staying in a hotel over a vacation rental – call the desk if there’s something wrong!
Take steps to avoid common illnesses like malaria and dengue
Malaria is common in many parts of the world, especially the tropics, and here are three things you should know about it:
- there is no vaccine for it
- nothing can protect you 100%
- it can appear months after you’ve been bitten.
Your first line of defense is to avoid malaria altogether
The female anopheles mosquito, which carries malaria, tends to bite at night, from dusk to dawn. You can avoid bites by wearing long sleeves and trousers, especially clothing that is mosquito repellent; wearing light colors; using DEET – here is what you need to know; spraying your room; using your air conditioning or a fan; using your mosquito net (don’t forget to tuck it under your mattress) or a self-contained travel mosquito net or tent with the smallest mesh possible, and try to return indoors before dark.
The principal way of avoiding malaria is by taking antimalarial pills
They may not be 100% effective, but more than a million people die each year of the disease and you don’t want to be one of them. A specialist will tell you what to take, depending on where you’re going.
What to do if you do get malaria
Even if you’re careful, you may still get malaria, so know the symptoms: similar to flu, including fever, chills, headache, aching muscles, tiredness, nausea, and diarrhea. It usually starts with shivers, after which you get hotter and hotter until you sweat profusely.
If you develop these symptoms when you’re in a malaria-risk area, get to a doctor, not in a few days, but immediately. Otherwise, you may be at risk of developing cerebral malaria, which can be fatal. A blood test, available throughout the developing world, will determine whether you’re infected, and treatment is widely available in areas where malaria is common.
And then there’s dengue
Dengue is also caught from mosquitoes and like malaria, there is no vaccine.
Also like malaria, dengue requires avoiding bites by covering up and using repellent. It is found in similar climates, tropical and sub-tropical, with the difference that mosquitoes bite during the day.
The bad news: where malaria and dengue coexist, you’ll have to take major precautions both day and night.
Deal with fears and phobias
Many of us have fears, some of them based on past experiences, and others that may feel irrational.
However they feel, they remain real to us, so much so that some of them may actually prevent us from traveling. There are plenty of common ones, such as fear of spiders, of heights, of water…
Plane travel tips: avoiding jet lag
Jet lag is one of those conditions that is virtually inevitable if you’re traveling long distances across the world. Many of us have succeeded in at least minimizing jet lag, and in some cases avoiding jet lag altogether.
It’s worth the effort to get rid of jet lag. Arriving at your destination relatively rested can make a huge difference: suffering the effects of half a dozen time zones can mean a week or more of discomfort.
Protect yourself with insurance
One of the most incomprehensible comments I’ve ever heard is from travelers who say they don’t want insurance because it’s ‘too expensive’ or because ‘I’m healthy and nothing will happen to me.’
Well, I’m healthy too but I had an unexpected health emergency on a trip that could have cost me $25,000 had I been without health insurance (you can read more about it here).
And I also tripped on a sidewalk and broke my elbow. That wasn’t expected and the insurance cover made all the difference when I was stuck with my arm in a sling for weeks.
Most insurance stops at 66 or 70 so if you’re under that age, I recommend World Nomads, which I used and loved for years. If you’re over that age, I’ve scouted plenty of other insurance companies that will happily ensure you and your travels at any age.
Medications and prescriptions
If you’re taking any medication, such as for high blood pressure or menopause, check with your doctor before you travel. You may have to take the medication with you, as well as your doctor’s prescriptions. Most large foreign cities have pharmacies where you can usually fill a prescription, but that won’t be the case if you’re in a rural or wild part of the world.
Try to find out the chemical composition of your medicines. They have different names in different countries and something common where you live may be known under another name elsewhere. This has happened to me often so knowing the chemical make-up has meant I could buy what I needed.
Take a first aid kit along
While most travel is painless and illness-free, it’s still wise to equip yourself with the right medical gear: this first aid kit checklist will help you gather what you need (or if you prefer, you can simply buy a pre-made kit like this excellent one from My Medic).
Important hygiene considerations
Staying clean and exercising basic hygiene will go a long way to healthy traveling.
Many illnesses are the result of poor hygiene or of things we don’t even think about when we travel because we don’t have to at home. Please make sure you follow these personal hygiene tips to stay healthy.
What to do if you get sick on vacation or while travelling
Even when you take every precaution, you might get sick when you travel. It could be something as relatively harmless as getting sick over the food, as I did in Tunisia recently, or a severe illness or accident. Here are some tips on what to do if you get sick while traveling.
Drinking water safety and tummy troubles
The most common ailments when we travel are usually tummy-related: we may eat something that doesn’t agree with us, is too spicy or simply wasn’t properly cooked.
Often, it’s the water we drink so taking some drinking water precautions will help keep us healthy traveling.
Water is also used for washing food, making ice cubes, or brushing your teeth so using bottled water is paramount if you want to stay healthy while traveling.
Heat exhaustion if you’re heading to where it’s hot
In areas of high heat and dryness, you’ll need to protect yourself from heat exhaustion, sunstroke, and dehydration.
You’ll also need to explore special protection in other situations:
- Protection from the cold is essential if you head to the extreme North or South or any region that experiences cold weather.
- In humid regions, protection against dampness will be essential.
- For travel to high places, altitude sickness is a very real danger.
Make sure you take the proper precautions so that you’re ready to face any of these situations.
When motion sickness gets the better of you
I, unfortunately, don’t have the perfect constitution to ward off all travel sickness – especially those involving any kind of movement.
So I’ve developed a number of coping mechanisms for motion sickness, since as a traveler I spend a lot of time in cars, on buses, on trains, and even boats.
Here are a few health tips for travelers who are in the same boat as me (pun intended):
- If you have no medication or other aides, try breathing. Deep, slow breaths are essential to treat motion sickness. Keep your eye on the horizon as it can ease the discomfort.
- Apply acupressure, usually by placing a motion sickness wrist band on each wrist. These are popular and can be effective (although science is still out on this one).
- There’s something called a ReliefBand that pilots use. I haven’t tried this yet but it has an excellent reputation, so it is next on my list.
- Ginger is another popular remedy – as candy or tea or essential oils. Peppermint tea is also said to work wonders.
- It is said that nutrition can also help, such as Vitamin B6 and Coenzyme Q10, although this hasn’t been medically proven.
If motion sickness does strike despite your precautions, there is medicine for nausea, many available over the counter, as well as patches for longer trips. Do check with your doctor because some have side effects.
For some reason, women can be more susceptible than men to motion sickness in general, and in particular, when they do a lot of aerobic exercises, use contraceptive pills or suffer from anxiety. The good news is that the older we get, the less susceptible to motion sickness we become. (I’m still waiting.)
Here are a few more tips to avoid getting sick when traveling:
- Avoid drinking alcohol or eating heavy food before boarding the bus or boat (if you don’t, it may not stay down long). Snack instead.
- Keep your eyes at rest. Don’t read or look at a screen. This will help make you dizzy if you’re already prone to it.
- Some areas move less than others – like the front seat of the bus or the front of the plane.
- Don’t sit backward, with your back facing the direction of travel. Sit by the window and keep your eye on the horizon.
- Avoid anything that might make you feel ill – bad smells, other sick people.
- Don’t move your head too much.
- Hydrate yourself properly by drinking plenty of water.
- Practice working out while traveling to stay in shape.
- And think positive! Sometimes, just something for yourself might do the trick.
Alternatives to Western medicine
Some countries excel in non-mainstream or traditional treatments. In Asia, for example, it will be easy to find a qualified acupuncturist should you need one, which you can consult instead of or in addition to a Western medicine specialist.
So if you’ve managed to travel without getting sick, congratulations!
But let’s keep it that way by adopting travel health behaviors that will keep you as fit and healthy as possible while you travel.
— Originally published on 09 January 2011