Travel Health Advice – Vaccinations, Health Problems and Natural Hazards
Too often trips are spoilt by people not taking proper care of themselves or preparing for their trips thoroughly enough. Nearly every health problem that can occur on the road can be prevented (or at least reduced) through diligent planning and foresight.
On this page we’ll look at vaccinations (what they are, which ones you need and why you need them), health problems and illnesses that can occur along the way (such as diarrhea, malaria and altitude sickness), natural hazards to watch out for (such as coral and jellyfish in the sea), how you can get medical care abroad (if necessary), important items that you should take with you when you’re traveling (such as a sterile medical kit and Dioralyte powder) and final preparations that you should make before you leave (such as visiting the dentist and the optician).
If you’re traveling to a country where you need certain vaccinations and injections before entering (often for polio, typhoid or hepatitis) than it’s important that you sort this well before you leave (at least a few months in advance), as some travel vaccinations need to be administered in multiple stages (taking time), and some need to be in your body for a while before they start to work.
The easiest way to get them done is to visit your local doctor (i.e. your GP). They will often ask you a list of questions such as:
- Which countries are you going to (and when)?
- Are you venturing outside of the major cities?
- How long will you be in each place for?
- Are you taking any prescribed medication?
From your answers, they’ll be able to work out which injections you need.
In the UK, nearly all travel vaccinations are free (all of the most common ones are, anyway) on the National Health Service (NHS).
If you have your jabs done at a specialised travel clinic (of which there are many – some operating within health centers) you may be charged a small fee.
Most doctors will provide you with some kind of booklet or sheet for keeping track of your jabs (if they don’t automatically give you one than be sure to ask) so that you know which vaccinations you’ve had (and more importantly – what you’re protected from). This will also contain the dates that the travel immunizations were given, Officials at certain border crossings (when entering countries) may ask to see this form/booklet to make sure you’re had the required vaccinations before allowing you entry to their country. Such a check is rare, but it’s always a good idea to carry this item with you just in case.
As some injections can be expensive, make sure to check whether the price quoted is per dose or per immunization. Some vaccinations required two or three injections (i.e. multiple doses) to complete, so it’s important to distinguise what you’re being charged for.
Health Problems to Watch Out For
Diarrhea is something that most first-time travelers brush off when you tell them to watch out for it (or how to combat it), but it’s something that nearly every traveler (certainly every traveler I know) has suffered from at some point. When you’re in a new country or a new part of the world for the first time it can take a while to adjust (especially to the new types of food), so diarrhea often occurs.
Sadly there’s very little to prevent it (apart from making sure you only eat clean food). For more information on being vigilant with food and drink, check out this post on healthy travel.
If you do fall victim to diarrhea, make sure to drink plenty of water, keep yourself hydrated with Dioralyte hydration powders (which replace lost minerals), keep out of the sun and avoid alcohol and fruit (including fruit juices) as it’ll pass straight through you.
Diarrhea is usually nothing to worry about and something that you simply have to get on with and get out of your system (excuse the pun!), but if you have a fever or you find that you’re passing blood than it’s time to go to the doctor.
For information on heatstroke/sunstroke, check out this post on staying out of the sun and handling the heat.
Altitude sickness frequently occurs at heights of over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) and can occasionally become fatal. Obviously there are different levels of altitude sickness, but you’ll know you’ve got it if you feel dizzy, short of breath, sick, uncoordinated, fatigued and you have a bad headache.
The best way to prevent it is to try to acclimatize your body to high altitudes before doing anything extreme. For example, If you’re planning on scaling a mountain in an area that’s already a long way above sea level, spend a few days (at least) in that area so that you body acclimatizes to the change and increases its production of blood cells.
If you’re half way up a mountain and begin to feel sick, the best thing to do is to simply go back down to a lower point.
It’s also worth noting that at high altitudes the sun’s rays will be stronger, meaning they’ll cause you more damage if you’re not properly protected (so make sure to wear sun block and to cover up).
The rules of contracting AIDS/HIV don’t change when you’re away, so always keep your wits about you and avoid needles that may have been used on someone else (this includes needles used in shady-looking tattoo parlors). To reduce the risk of catching AIDS, carry a sterile medical kit with you just in case.
This is most commonly found in areas with poor sanitation and is spread through contaminated food and drink. Cholera is most commonly found in Africa, South America, Asia and the Middle East. Vaccinations can be given for this, but they aren’t 100% effective (and only lasts for 3-6 months), so it’s always best to be on your guard.
Hepatitis A and B
Hepatitis A (often shortened to ‘Hep A’) is most commonly spread by consuming food or drink that’s been contaminated.
It is most commonly found in Australia, New Zealand, North America and Eastern Europe and in areas where the sanitation is poor.
Hepatitis B is worse than Hepatitis A, as it can be fatal and is extremely infectious. Like HIV, it is transmitted through infected body fluids or blood, and is most commonly found in Africa, Eastern Europe, South America and parts of Asia.
Most travelers catch Hep B when they’re being administered medical care abroad, or when they’re getting a tattoo or having acupuncture treatment and the needle being used is infected.
Oftentimes a joint Hep A and Hep B vaccine is administered, which is done in the form of 3 separate jabs and must be given at least six months before you leave (as it takes six months to start working). This vaccine will last for around 5 years.
Malaria infected mosquitoes thrive in certain tropical areas, and being bitten by one is how most people fall victim to the disease. It can be fatal in some cases, but most of the time it simply causes a lot of pain to the sufferer.
There are lots of different malaria tablets on the market, such as Doxycycline and Malarone, and they can be bought over the counter at most major pharmacists. Each type of tablet differs in price – generally with the more expensive ones having less side effects. In my experience, Doxycycline are the cheapest, but they also seem to have the most negative side effects (such as sickness and loss of appetite).
Even if you are taking malaria tablets, they aren’t 100% effective, so always be sure to carry (and use) some DEET insect repellant to avoid getting bitten in the first place.
Similar to malaria, dengue fever is carried by daytime mosquitoes and is common in Asia, South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Unfortunately, there is no known vaccine for dengue fever, so it’s best to try and avoid being bitten in the first place (by using an insect repellant). Dengue fever isn’t fatal (in most cases), but it can cause a lot of pain to its victims and last for over a week.
Most people are immunized against this when they’re young, but if you’re traveling to an area where it’s found make sure to get a booster injection (which will last you 10 years).
It is spread via contact with an infected person or through infected food/drink. Although rare, it is found most commonly in Australia, New Zealand, North America and Eastern Europe.
Don’t let this long list of potential health problems scare you – as long as you see a doctor before you leave and tell them exactly where you’re traveling to, they’ll be able to give advice on how to avoid such things as well as the appropriate immunizations.
Most people (including myself) have a fear of snakes, but the old saying that they’re ‘more scared of you than you are of them’ is true, and they usually won’t attack unless they feel threatened.
If you’re in an area where you might expect to see a snake, keep your legs covered (by wearing trousers) and wear a tick pair of boots (if possible) to protect your feet.
Instead of trying to be as quiet as possible (so as not to alert them to your presence), it’s actually a better idea to be as noisy as possible in an attempt to scare them away before you ever get near them.
If you are ever bitten by a snake, stay calm and keep the area that was bitten as still as possible. You don’t want to increase the flow of blood to the bitten area as that will help the poison to work faster. This means that you shouldn’t take pain killers (such as aspirin) when bitten.
Obviously you’ll need to get to a doctor/hospital as quickly as possible, but try to see what the snake looked like (i.e. its color, shape and length), as giving an accurate description of it will ensure that the doctor can give you the right antidote to the poison.
My advice with spiders is very similar to what you should do with snakes. If bitten by a spider, try to get a good look at it (so you can describe it later) then get to a hospital ASAP. When staying in places where spiders (especially dangerous spider) might be, I make it a rule to always check inside my shoes (by shaking them out) before putting them on, and under the toilet seat (as they can sometimes be found lurking there).
There are lots of natural hazards in the sea, but the one that most people don’t think about is coral. Coral, although fragile can often be extremely sharp and can easily give you a nasty cut or graze given the chance. Most of the time these cuts will occur on your feet (I myself picked up several cuts on my feet when swimming in various beaches in Thailand), so a good way to avoid such cuts is to wear shoes or some kind of sandal when swimming.
When you talk about natural hazards in the sea, most people will think of sharks, yet only a couple of people a year actually die from shark attacks, and most of the time when a shark bites you it’ll instantly realize you’re not what it’s looking for and back off.
The problem with jellyfish is that they very difficult to see (as most of them are almost see-through), so you could be swimming right next a whole group of them and never realize (as I have before!)
Most jellyfish aren’t poisonous, but they can still give you a nasty sting. If you are stung, the best you can do is to rub vinegar or alcohol on the affected area to neutralize the sting.
Most poisonous jellyfish are found in parts of Asia (mainly South-East Asia), Australia and in the Pacific Ocean. Luckily, it’s easy to predict where (and when) jellyfish will be in the sea, as they usually stick to certain areas and only come out at certain times of the year/day. If you’re unsure as to whether it’s safe to swim, your best bet is to ask the locals.11
In the Shower
If you’re staying in a place when there shower probably isn’t cleaned very often, or where it’s used by lots of different people frequently (such as in a youth hostel) or if you’re staying in a beach hut where the shower has no ceiling, it’s a good idea to wear flip-flops/sandals into the shower to protect your feet, as you never know what might be on the ground. This is ten times more important if you’ve got a cut or graze on your feet, as it can easily become infected.
Getting Medical Care Abroad (for UK Nationals)
International health care can be a tricky issue, depending on where you’re from and which country you’re visiting.
If you’re a UK national, you’re entitled to free emergency international health and medical services in over 30 countries around the world. These countries include Australia, New Zealand, several Eastern European and ex-Soviet countries and countries within the European Union (EU).
Getting health care in these countries usually requires little more than proving where you’re from (by using your passport).
UK nationals are entitled to a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) that lets you get free healthcare (or healthcare that’s drastically reduced in cost) in countries that belong to the European Union. It is worth noting that this card doesn’t cover you for everything, so taking out an insurance policy in conjunction with it is a good idea (especially if you’re doing anything dangerous). To apply for one of these (free) cards, visit www.ehic.org.uk
Unfortunately, when traveling the USA, South-East Asia, India, Africa and South America you’ll have to pay for health care out of your own pocket. Health care bills in these places can quickly escalate (into thousands of pounds), which is why it’s vitally important that you take out a full travel insurance policy (that covers health care) before you travel.
Important Items to Take With You
If you’re on any prescribe medication or you use items such as special shampoos that can’t be bought over the counter or found easily, visit your doctor before leaving and ask for an extended prescription. If you tell them you’re going traveling, they should be able to give you an extra amount to take with you.
Obviously there will be a limit to the amount they can prescribe you, so if you’re going away for a long time and you think you won’t have enough, make a note of the names of the products you’re using (and what they use) so that you can buy them abroad. Products are often sold under different brand names abroad, but if examined closely they should have the same generic name. For example, Vaseline is something that most people know, but it is really just the brand name for ‘pure petroleum jelly’.
If you are taking prescribe medication abroad, make sure to keep them all in their labeled original containers (to avoid suspicion when traveling through customs). To preserve the labels on these containers cover them with clear Sellotape to stop them peeling off or being marked.
It’s also a good idea to get a letter from your doctor stating that he/she has issued this medication for your personal use.
If you’re going to areas where medical care is basic or limited (i.e. most developing countries) it’s a good idea to take a sterile medical kit with you. This kit contains a set all the basic equipment that a doctor would need when administering care (such as a needle). Why do you need one of these when the doctor would have his own equipment? In many countries, needles and other items are re-used, meaning they could be using the same needle on you that was previously used on someone else.
These ready-made medical kits are fairly easy to find, and can be bought in chemists and travel stores (both online and offline). Buying one of these ‘official’ medical packs is far better than simply carrying a bunch of loose needles and syringes along with you as it’s far less suspicious!
Other items you should bring are plasters, malaria tablets (if you’re going to a malaria zone), rehydration powders (Dioralyte), antiseptic wipes (in case you get cuts) and blister kits (if you’re planning on doing a lot of walking or trekking).
Preparing Yourself for a Trip – What to do Before You Leave
Before you go away on a long trip (especially one where you’ll be traveling to developing countries) there are a few things that you should do to prepare yourself.
Go for a routine check-up at your local dentist a month before you leave. This gives you enough time to book further appointments and have dental work done (if necessary). Having problems with your teeth while traveling can really ruin a trip, so it’s better to nip any potential problems in the bud before you leave.
Getting dental work done abroad should be avoided if possible, as it’s often extremely costly and because the standard of dentists in foreign countries (especially developing countries) might not be the same as in the USA or UK, meaning you could end up doing more harm than good.
Optician (Eye Doctor)
Visiting the optician before a long trip is a good idea if you wear glasses or contact lenses, as it’s a good idea to get a spare pair of glasses or replacement contact lenses in case your primary pair gets damaged/lost while you’re away.
Even if you normally always wear lenses, it’s a good idea to take a pair of glasses with you as a backup. One of the major annoyances with contact lenses is that you need to carry around large bottles of cleaning fluid so that they don’t dry up. Having to carry this extra weight can be a pain for backpackers, which is why wearing glasses (or using disposable contact lenses) can be a good alternative.
Take a Basic First Aid Course
Taking a basic first aid course before any trip is a good idea, especially if you’ll be spending a lot of time outside of major cities or in the wilderness. Knowledge of first aid is useful in all walks of life, and is a great thing to have on your résumé.
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