About 30 million Americans go abroad each year, some 8 million of whom visit developing countries where the risk of tropical and infectious diseases is high. And many of them fail to follow basic travel health advice.
The good news is most of these diseases are preventable, but the bad news is most people fail to take steps to protect themselves.
Think about health in advance of your trip. If you have a chronic health problem, get a checkup before you leave. And find out as much as you can in advance about destination-specific health risks.
Pack a Travel Health Kit
Expect the unexpected, warns Connor. He tells all his patients to pack a travel health kit, equipped with the following:
- An anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen or naproxen
- Anti-diarrhea medication such as Imodium, available over-the-counter
- Motion sickness medication — also available over-the-counter
- Antiseptic cream
- Drugs for stomach upset
If you wear glasses, pack a spare pair. Mosquito or other bug repellents may also be advisable.
And if you take any prescription drugs, be sure to bring along enough for the entire trip, he says. If you’re flying, always place the medication in your carry-on luggage in case your baggage is lost.
A Shot in the Arm
A new survey shows that 4 in 10 Americans traveling to areas with high rates of malaria fail to carry antimalarial drugs. And although the majority of travelers said they believe vaccines are effective for prevention, only 1 in 3 was immunized against tetanus, fewer than 3 in 10 had received hepatitis A shots, and just 1 in 10 was vaccinated against yellow fever.
Ensure you have all the right vaccinations and medications before you leave.
Drink and Eat Sensibly
Travelers’ diarrhea throws a wrench into more vacations than any other disease, striking an estimated 10 million travelers each year, says David Shlim, MD, medical director of Jackson Hole Travel and Tropical Medicine in Wyoming. High-risk destinations: Mexico, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
To minimize risk, follow this standard travel health advice:
- Drink only bottled or boiled water.
- Eat well cooked, rather than raw or undercooked meat and seafood.
- Avoid any foods or beverages purchased from street vendors or establishments with unhygienic conditions.
- Avoid eating raw fruits and vegetables unless you peel them yourself.
- Don’t put ice in your drinks.
Wash Your Hands — Again, and Again, and Again
Good hygiene is the first line of defense against any viral or bacterial ailment, be it the common cold or the potentially deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome.
When should you wash? Before you prepare or eat food; treat a cut or wound; tend to someone who is sick, or insert or remove contact lenses. And, of course, you should wash after you go to the bathroom; handle uncooked foods, particularly raw meat, poultry or fish; change a diaper; blow your nose, cough or sneeze; handle garbage; tend to someone who is sick or injured, or handle an animal or animal waste.
If the washroom has an electric hand-dryer rather than a paper dispenser, use your elbow to turn it on.
Don’t Get Bitten
Mosquitoes are not just pesky pests: They can carry West Nile disease, dengue fever, even malaria. Ticks spread Lyme disease. But a few simple precautions can minimize your risk of getting bitten this summer:
- Stay indoors at dawn and dusk and in the evening, when mosquitoes are most active.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and hats. Shirts should be tucked in.
- Tuck your pants into your socks and wear boots, not sandals.
- Inspect yourself and your clothing for ticks, both during outdoor activity and at the end of the day. Prompt removal of attached ticks can prevent some infections.
- Consider using an insect repellent: Most experts recommend repellents containing DEET on skin and permethrin-containing repellents on clothing, shoes, bed nets, and camping gear. But these ingredients can be toxic, so be sure to follow the instructions carefully.