By David Yoho, M.D.
David Yoho, M.D., is a board-certified internal medicine and infectious diseases physician with Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. He sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Springfield Medical Center.
Nothing is better than a great vacation. And nothing ruins a vacation faster than getting sick. Fortunately, with proper planning and preparation, you can prevent many types of illnesses. And if, despite your best efforts, you do get sick, being well prepared can help you and your family member recover more quickly.
As an infectious disease specialist, I cannot overstress the importance of preparing for your trip months—not days—before you are set to leave for vacation. The first place to start for any trip, home or abroad, is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Simply type in your destination to find up-to-the-minute updates and resources on what shots might be required for the region you are visiting, how to travel with prescriptions and over-the-counter medicine, and much more.
Far too often, patients come to see me for shots and vaccinations the day before they leave for their vacation. That’s a problem, because some courses of medication—such as anti-malarials—need to be started weeks in advance to be protective. So, be sure to allow plenty of time to get needed shots/medicines and to get your medications in order.
Also, don’t assume you know what preventive steps you need to take. I have had patients who were born in Africa, for example, who are traveling home for a visit after living in the United States. Some mistakenly believe that since they were born in that country, they don’t need to worry about anti-malarial treatment. But that’s not true. Everyone needs to follow the guidelines as outlined for the country they are visiting.
Pack Healthy, Pack Smart
Just as important as what to wear when you are traveling is what you pack to keep yourself healthy and safe. Start with mainstays such as hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol) and antibacterial hand wipes, sunscreen and insect repellent. Depending on your destination, you may also want to bring water purification tablets.
If you are diabetic or asthmatic, have allergies or have another condition, be sure to bring any medicines or devices you will need (including a medical alert bracelet or necklace).
All prescription medicines should be packed in their original containers, not mixed, and with a separate, typed list of what you take (including name, dosage and frequency). If you will be away for several weeks, before you leave, explain to your pharmacist that you are traveling. Most will give you enough medication for the duration of your trip.
Also, be sure to keep your over-the-counter medicines in their original packaging. Be prepared for any contingency by including a wide range of OTC medications: anti-diarrhea medicine, antacids, antihistamines, motion sickness medicine, cough drops/cough suppressant/expectorant, decongestant, pain and fever medicine, mild laxatives. Include a small first-aid kit packed with CDC recommendations.
Airplanes are known breeding grounds for germs. Avoid catching a cold or something worse by using your own disinfecting wipes to sanitize the tray table and seatbelt buckles, and use a paper towel when touching anything in the bathroom. Be fastidious about keeping your hands clean (use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer), and stay hydrated. The lack of onboard air humidity dries out mucus membranes, which can make you more susceptible to viruses and bacteria.
If you or a family member is prone to motion sickness, avoid eating a large meal before you travel, take anti-nausea medicine and load up your device with audio books, since nausea is not uncommon when you’re reading on a plane, bus or train.
It’s important to note that taking large doses of vitamin C before and during air travel is not proven to prevent colds, according to the National Institutes of Health. It may reduce the severity of your cold symptoms; however, there is no conclusive data that proves that.
The Most Common Traveler’s Illness
Far and away, the most common ailment for those traveling is traveler’s diarrhea, a disorder of the digestive tract that causes loose stools and cramps. Caused by contaminated food or water, traveler’s diarrhea is unpleasant, but it is usually not serious. In most cases, it resolves itself within several days without treatment. It’s a good idea to travel with doctor-approved (or over-the-counter) medication for diarrhea, though.
Traveler’s diarrhea can happen anywhere. I traveled all over Asia and never got sick, but I got traveler’s diarrhea in France and Spain. My rule of thumb for food while traveling is “boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it.” Watch what you eat and drink: no food from street vendors, raw food or room-temperature buffets, salads or sliced fruits. Don’t drink tap, well or stream water (including ice cubes), and use bottled water to brush your teeth. The CDC website has a complete list of food and drink safety recommendations for each country.
If you or a family member gets traveler’s diarrhea, watch for signs of severe dehydration (persistent vomiting, bloody stools or a high fever), which would require medical help. If you are traveling abroad and there is an urgent care center, you can get treatment there. Or the U.S. embassy or consulate can help locate a medical professional.
A note about probiotics and traveler’s diarrhea: The jury is out whether or not they help this particular type of gastrointestinal distress. Some research indicates that taking probiotics can help prevent it, while other studies show probiotics don’t help at all.
Don’t Neglect Important Documentation
In case you or a family member does get sick or injured while you are away, be prepared by making sure important documents are packed and in order.
For you and every member of your traveling party, make copies of your passport and travel documents, health insurance cards and documents and your driver’s licenses. Also copy a list of all prescriptions, proof of yellow fever vaccination (if required for your trip) and a list of medicine and/or food allergies and any medical conditions.
You’ll also want to include a card with contact information for a family member or friend in the U.S., your healthcare provider (including your dentist) and the hospitals or clinics (including emergency services) at your destination. Give an extra set of these documents to someone at home so that this information is easily accessible should luggage get delayed or stolen.
For more information on travelers’ health, visit the CDC website.
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