Updated: Dec 27, 2020
More people are traveling now than ever before. Travel can provide amazing new experience for adults and children alike. International travel can lead to wonderful new experiences and lasting memories. However, travel can also lead to health problems that range in severity from unpleasant to life threatening.
There are many things that go into planning a trip. In getting ready for an upcoming trip we often overlook our health. Taking the appropriate steps to protect our health should be part of trip planning, we call this the pre trip planning. Why should you think about your health while planning a trip? Here are a few reasons.
Depending on where you go and how long you plan to stay, your body will be exposed to germs that do not exist in the United States or other developed countries. This can put your body at an increased risk of acquiring an illness. No better way to ruin a trip than getting sick.
Just getting to the destination can affect your health. For example, long flights or car rides can increase your risk of developing clots (DVT) in your legs.
If you have medical problems and are on medications at home, it may be difficult to find the needed medications or have access to medical care should something happen.
Obviously this depends on your travel destination, the more remote, the higher the risk.
If you are a novice traveler and are traveling outside of your home country for the first time or on your third passport and have seen half the world, it may be still be worthwhile to have a routine medical checkup as part of you pre trip planning. This is important even if you are young and without any medical problems.
Doctors who are well versed in pre travel planning can provide the appropriate vaccines, medications, and tips for staying healthy during the trip.
Can you travel if you have a medical condition?
You just need to be diligent and plan accordingly. If you have an ongoing health problem, especially a chronic illness such as diabetes or heart disease, discuss your trip plans with your doctor.
Millions of people with medical conditions travel without any issues. It is important to plan ahead. You want to make sure you have all your medications and other supplies (ie glucometer) and have enough to last you for the duration of your trip.
Traveling with certain medications or medical equipment may require a note from your doctor confirming all the medicines you take, the doses, and why you take them. Most common medications do not need this.
For example, those who are diabetic may need to have medications such as insulin and syringes with them when they fly. Those with chronic heart or lung conditions may need to be on oxygen when flying because the inflight air on a plane has less oxygen.
Obviously if you need to travel with an oxygen tank on a plane you must make arrangements with the airline prior to your flight.
What are some things you can do to protect your health when you travel?
If you are planning on a trip to Asia, Africa, Latin America, or Eastern Europe you may need to take some pre travel measures to protect your health. This includes vaccines and/or prophylactic medications (ie malaria).
A lot of this depends on your destination.
For example, if you are planning to visit certain parts of Africa or Latin America, you may need to get a yellow fever vaccine. This is something you have to plan ahead for as vaccines should ideally be given at least a couple of weeks prior to travel.
Food borne illness is one of the greatest threats to your health when traveling. It is important to take appropriate precautions. These include avoiding unpeeled fruit, raw vegetables, unpasteurized dairy products or raw meat or fish. Peel any fruit yourself before eating it.
Depending on where you are, you may need to avoid tap water (this includes ice).
To help make the water safer for drinking, drink bottled water or you can boil water for 3 minutes and then let it cool or you can add 2 drops of 5% bleach to 2 quarts of water, shake it up and let it sit for at least 30 minutes. Alternatively, there are a number of filtration devices on the market that can be used.
Zika isn’t a hot topic on the news any more but the incidence is unchanged. This along with other mosquito/insect borne disease can pose a serious health threat. Protect yourself by using a bug spray that has DEET or picaridin. Protective clothing is also helpful. If spending time outdoors (hiking etc) you should check your body for ticks or other insects when you get back.
When possible avoid insect-infested and tick/mite-infested areas and try to minimize time spent outdoors after dark.
Malaria is a serious infection that is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito. The above suggestions can reduce the risk of being bitten.
Avoid walking barefoot in places that may have animal or human waste in the sand or soil as this can cause infections. Wearing shoes also helps protect your feet from injuries that could lead to infections and really ruin your trip.
Accidents, especially motor vehicle accidents, account for about 25% of deaths in American travelers. The risk of accidents and injury can be reduced by avoiding driving at night, knowing local driving laws and road conditions, wearing a seat belt, wearing a helmet if ridings a motor cycle and most importantly not driving intoxicated.
Cities with a lot of traffic, such as Bangkok or Tehran require diligence and an understanding of the rules of the road. Be extra careful when driving or crossing the street.
What if you are pregnant?
Traveling for pregnant women is safe. Air travel has no known risks for the fetus. However, this should be discussed with your doctor as women with high risk pregnancies or close to their delivery date probably should limit flying.
During long flights, pregnant women should stretch and flex their legs. They should also stand up and move around when it is safe to do so to prevent blood clots in the legs.
Also, some of the vaccines and medicines needed for travel to certain areas are not safe for pregnant women. Decision regarding where to travel should be discussed with your doctor.
There are some general recommendations about travel during pregnancy. If you are pregnant, you should avoid travel to places where there is malaria. Also, if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant you should avoid travel to areas where there is a risk of exposure to Zika.
Participating in "high risk" activities
If you are planning on diving while traveling, plan to wait at least 24-48 hours (depending on the length of dives) before getting on an airplane. This is important for avoiding decompression sickness (also called "the bends").
Traveling to mountainous or other high-altitude areas puts you at higher risk of developing altitude sickness. You should be familiar with and take steps to prevent high-altitude illnesses. These illnesses include mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary edema, and high-altitude cerebral edema.
If you plan to travel to remote areas and will be hours or days from medical care, especially if you will be exposed to extreme climates or exercise-related stress, you need to be prepared and have a plan for "the worse case scenario."
Other things to think about
When you get back, if you have symptoms of fever, diarrhea, or rash you should see your doctor immediately and tell her about where you traveled to, how long you were there and what you did.
There is a tool available through Massachusetts General Hospital that lets you enter your age and where you plan to travel, then gives you tips. This includes a checklist of things to do before, during, and after your trip. The information is based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The link to use this tool: http://gten.travel/trhip/trhip.
With a little bit of planning, you can minimize the risk to your health and enjoy your trip without any undue hiccups.
To see part one of this blog click here.
Please remember that medical information provided by us must be considered an educational service only. This blog should not be relied upon as medical judgement and does not replace your physician’s independent judgement. This is NOT medical advice. Please seek the advice of your physician.