Tips for Staying Healthy While Traveling Abroad

Before you pack up and head into the great unknown, it's best to do a little research about your far-flung destination and jet off with just a bit of preparation. Here is our guide on pre-trip prep, what to look out for while you're there, and how to protect yourself.
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dried squid, Bangkok, Thailand
Though they might be tasty, exotic foods can lead to food-borne illness. Here, dried squids hang out to dry on a food stand in Bangkok, Thailand.  (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Great adventures, new cultures, and exotic foods actively push you beyond your comfort zone. And while the potential illnesses and injuries associated with these activities rarely outweigh the rewards of exploring a destination, visiting a different part of the world does mean exposure to unique health problems and an increased risk of even common injuries.

"Motor-vehicle-accident injuries are one of the most common that travelers encounter," says Dr. Erik McLaughlin, a.k.a. the "Adventure Doc," who specializes in adventure-travel health from his Tucson, Arizona, clinic. "The best prevention: Wear your seat belt, don’t travel at night, sit in the middle-aisle seats on buses, and use common sense."

That last one—common sense—is key, for more than just road travel. Vaccinations and medications aren’t last-minute fix-alls. They are tools that responsible travelers should wield intelligently and purposefully. Here is our guide to helping you avoid the most common travel-health issues.

The first step in responsible planning is to check the Travelers’ Health section of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, which provides up-to-date, destination-specific information on disease outbreaks, places to avoid, and a list of required or suggested vaccinations and medications.

Then, make an appointment with a doctor experienced in travel health at least two months before departure. Some preventive treatments, like certain anti-malaria drugs, need time to kick in or should be taken over a few weeks.

"If possible, provide the doctor with a copy of your vaccination records," McLaughlin says. "Many of my patients haven’t seen or updated these since childhood, but usually their family doctors will have them on file." Many American adults haven’t had the booster shots for their childhood vaccinations against illnesses like measles or mumps. And while most travelers won’t need a yellow-fever or Japanese-encephalitis vaccination, many haven’t been vaccinated against tuberculosis (TB), hepatitis A and B, or polio, which is nonexistent in the United States but still a factor in other countries.

Food-Borne Illness
Far and away the most common travel-health issue, and one that pretty much every traveler will experience at some point, is travelers’ diarrhea (TD)—a.k.a. Montezuma’s Revenge, Delhi Belly, and any number of regional euphemisms. According to the CDC website, as many as 50 percent of travelers on a one- to two-week trip will experience TD, and while it most commonly happens as a result of eating food or water contaminated by E. coli, particularly sensitive people could get upset stomachs just from unusual foods or the general stress of travel.

The best preventive measures are regular hand washing and careful eating. Eat only well-cooked foods that are still hot, don’t consume salads or raw vegetables, and drink only bottled water unless tap water is explicitly safe. Unpeeled fruits should be fine.

The CDC also recommends regular doses of Pepto-Bismol—two ounces of liquid or two chewable tablets, four times a day, throughout the trip—to reduce the chances of getting TD. Even better, ask a doctor to prescribe antibiotics, and take them as soon as symptoms appear—the rumbling should subside within a day or two. The most common of these antibiotics is a drug called ciprofloxacin, and the typical dose is one tablet twice a day.

Once TD has set in, it’s best to let it run its course. "I believe in a ‘let it flow’ philosophy," McLaughlin says. "Staying hydrated and letting your body get it all out will shorten the duration." He adds that loperamide (Imodium) is a great temporary treatment, say for a long bus ride without toilet access. However, because loperamide physically clogs the bowels, it should be used sparingly.

Published: 5 Jan 2012 | Last Updated: 13 Jan 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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