Travel Health – Part 1

More and more people are looking to travel internationally, wanting to experience other cultures on a more genuine level and going "off the beaten path" to do so. Unfortunately, with travel comes more health risks, ranging in severity from mildly annoying and inconvenient to life threatening.

My colleague Beth Klemick gave some helpful tips in “Travel Advice” for how to replace your lost passport and what to do if you get sick, etc. Below is some information as to what you can do before you leave home in hopes of preventing problems from happening on the road.

With some pre-departure planning and precautions along the way, fortunately, most travel-related problems can be prevented. The key is to think about some of these suggestions and how they impact you personally giving special attention to your pre-existing medical conditions.

It is helpful to make an appointment with your physician at least 6-8 weeks prior to your departure to discuss possible health implications of your upcoming trip and to make sure you are as healthy as you can be before leaving the country. It would be a bummer if you "suddenly" developed a cavity that had to be filled while on the road.

Let's face it. It's very appealing to imagine making last minute plans to "jump on a plane" and get away to some exotic location. Some people thrive on this type of adventure while others strive to plan ahead for their travels. The truth is, you may not be able to stay as healthy and safe while traveling as you could have if you had prepared prior to your departure.

Of course, you cannot possibly prepare for every possible scenario or illness / injury; however, by doing some research ahead of time, you will be able to decrease your chances of running into a problem on your trip. So, let's take a look at some important ways you can prepare before landing in your destination country.

1. Are immunizations necessary?
We receive many questions from clients as to what immunizations we recommend when traveling to one country or another. There are many schools of thought as to whether or not you should immunize. Some travelers do not take precautions and return home without any problems at all while others wish they had prepared beforehand. This is a great resource with frequently asked questions about immunizing.

Your best bet is to pose this question to your primary care physician / internist, local health department or to a travel medicine practitioner at least 6-8 weeks before you are scheduled to leave home. Center for Disease Control and Prevention is a resource to find your local health department or travel medicine clinic in your area.

Leading up to your doctor's appointment, you can do some research to be ready to make the most of your time with the doctor. Here are some helpful links to get you started:

One more thing to keep in mind depending on where you are traveling is that you might need to show documentation of vaccination to the customs officials upon entry to their country, such as a yellow fever vaccination certificate. Vaccination Schedule

2. Pack a first aid/medicine kit
Include products specific to your health needs. Some items to consider include:

  • Pepto Bismol
  • Tylenol
  • Anti-diarrheal medicine
  • Bee sting kit (for those with severe reactions to bee stings)
  • Topical antibiotic (for cuts/scrapes)
  • Antibiotics (ask your doctor)
  • Motion sickness medicine
  • Vitamins
  • Bandaids
  • Allergy/cold medication
  • Spare glasses/contacts (with prescription)
  • Travel-sized flashlight
  • Insect repellent
  • Suntan lotion
  • Lip balm
  • Travel-sized toilet paper
  • Your daily medications

Here are some more ideas on what you might want to pack in your kit, according to the CDC.

What to bring along may depend on your destination, length of trip, planned activities/excursions, your own pre-existing medical conditions and type of travel.
If you are not sure what you should bring or want to make sure you haven't forgotten anything, it's always a good idea to check in with your physician since he/she knows your medical history.

Here are a couple more tips regarding traveling with medications:

  • Make sure you have enough medicine to last your whole trip with some to spare.
  • Keep your medications in their original bottles.
  • You will definitely want to pack your medicine kit in your carry-on luggage in case you need something en route but also if your luggage is lost!
  • Bring duplicate and legible prescriptions of your medications, written with brand and generic names, in case they should be lost or stolen.
  • To avoid possible trouble with customs agents, it is recommended that you bring a letter signed from your doctor for any narcotic medications, including pain medicine, sedatives or tranquilizers.
  • If you have to bring along any special medical equipment such as a CPAP or oxygen machine, it's a good idea to have your physician (the one who ordered it) write a letter on letterhead explaining your diagnosis, medical reasons for use, his/her name and title, etc for customs officials who may not be familiar with the equipment. And don't forget to check to see if you need special converter/adapter plugs! A helpful world electricity guide can be found at Kropla.
  • Plan to change your medication schedule to the new time zone (be sure to discuss with your doctor, first!)

If you are pre-disposed to respiratory problems, have asthma or allergies, you might want to talk to your doctor for remedies in case the air aggravates your breathing. In some towns in developing countries like in Central America, because of different or non-existent emissions laws, the pollution is so thick and black sometimes, especially when trailing behind a chicken bus on your way up the mountain on a one road, barely paved highway. Also, due to less oxygen in high altitude locations (like La Paz, Cusco and Quito), volcanic ash/dust particles and other allergens, your breathing can become affected, which can definitely put a damper on your trip.

3. Contact your health insurance provider to see if international medical claims for illness are covered and if special conditions apply.

4. Here's a great resource for general traveling including tips for traveling with children, pets and people with special needs: CDC

5. Travel Health Online
This great, free site offers lots of traveler education tips including information on country-specific diseases, immunizations, a medicine kit checklist, finding a travel medicine provider in your area for pre-departure advise and lots of related tips to allow you to become an informed traveler! Travel Health Online

You just have to register your name, email address and password, accept the terms & conditions and then activate your access by clicking on the acceptance email that you'll receive.

6. You might want to leave your specific itinerary along with copies of important paperwork, such as passport, visa, credit card information, travelers checks, insurance paperwork, etc, with one or two trusted family members/friends in case they have to reach you for an emergency or issues that arise at home, etc.

7. Get the address and phone number of the American Embassy in each country you visit. They are a good source for physicians and hospitals abroad.

8. In fact, you might want to register your trip with your embassy before heading out. It's a pretty simple process and it saves you from locating the embassy while abroad (though that's always a good idea, anyway!). For American travelers, here's the link to do just that. U.S. Department of State

9. And lastly, get plenty of rest the night before you leave (of course, if you are all packed!), plan some healthy protein-filled snacks for your day of travel and enjoy the ride!

Be sure to watch for next week's article on staying healthy while abroad!

By Sue Lavene

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