If you’re planning a vacation, the last thing you want to do is get sick or have a medical emergency while you’re away. Not every travel illness can be prevented, but many can be – or can be easily treated – if you know what to look out for and are prepared ahead of time. Whether you’re going on a trip around the world or a quick mountain getaway, here’s what you need to know about travel sickness and how to avoid spending more time sick in bed than out seeing the sights.
Traveler’s diarrhea is the most common travel sickness, experienced by 20 to 50 percent of international travelers. Visitors to developing nations in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa are most at risk. Avoid raw or undercooked meat, fish, and vegetables. Fruit that you peel yourself like a banana is usually safe. Choose bottled water, but be careful, says Michael Zimring, MD, director of the Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and co-author of the book “Healthy Travel: Don’t Travel Without It!” In some countries, vendors fill bottles with local water and sell them, he warns. Make sure bottled water is sealed and is a brand name. He also suggests choosing seltzer water because it’s harder to counterfeit. Talk to your doctor about antibiotics you can take with you in case you develop this travel illness.
Although jet lag isn’t a travel “sickness” per se, it can leave you feeling drained and tired. Flying across several time zones can upend your normal sleep-wake time clock. “Get into the sun so you get your time clock organized as quickly as possible,” says Herbert DuPont, MD, director of the Centers for Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. “Also, eat at the time locals do and get on their schedule.” Using sleep aids or taking naps when you land might make you feel better in the short term but could delay you from adjusting to the local time, which is better for healthy travel.
Whether you’re traveling or not, Dr. DuPont recommends getting an annual flu shot. It takes a few weeks to build your immunity, so get vaccinated well before your trip. To maintain healthy travel, be vigilant about hand washing, especially if you are traveling on crowded planes or buses. Be prepared with over-the-counter medications, just in case you come down with the flu or a travel-related illness. Pack acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease fever, body aches, or other flu-like symptoms. Try to rest and get plenty of fluids. If you become very ill, seek medical attention.
If you’ve ever had a bad hangover, you know what altitude sickness feels like. Going up a mountain quickly can cause this common travel illness because your body isn’t used to the lower oxygen levels at higher elevations. Depending on the individual, altitudes at or above 4,000 feet can trigger shortness of breath, muscle pain, and headache, says Dr. DuPont. Difficulty sleeping is another common symptom. Taking a drug called acetazolamide a day before your trip and for the first few days can prevent this travel sickness. However, if you’re allergic to sulfa drugs, you can’t take it, adds Dr. Zimring. Avoid alcohol, drink plenty of water, and don’t overdo physical activity the first day. If you feel very ill, seek medical attention.
Whether you’re traveling by boat, plane, or car, even seasoned travelers often deal with motion sickness. What causes this common travel illness and what can you do about it? Motion sickness happens when your inner ears and other senses detect motion, but your eyes don’t. These mixed signals reach the brain and trigger nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. On a boat, go up on deck so you see the horizon, suggests Dr. Zimring. In a car, sit in the front seat. Over-the-counter Dramamine can help, but Dr. Zimring recommends consulting your doctor to find out what can work best for you.
Soaking up the sun around the pool or on a white sandy beach is many people’s idea of a perfect vacation, but a painful sunburn can ruin your trip. For healthy travel, take along (and use) a sunscreen and a lip balm with SPF 30 or higher, says Adam Friedman, MD, a dermatologist and director of dermatologic research at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. It should say broad spectrum or UVA+UVB on the label, he adds. If you get burned, cool baths or wet cloths can ease pain. Finally, apply moisturizer, drink water, and stay out of the sun until your skin heals.
“Jellyfish stings can be exceedingly painful and, in fact, a beached jellyfish, even a dead one, can sting as pressure triggers the release of the tentacle barbs and venom,” says Dr. Friedman. In non-tropical waters, wash the area with water to neutralize the sting. In tropical waters, use vinegar, not water. Use shaving cream or soap if vinegar isn’t available. Rub a credit card over the area to remove any stingers and then reapply vinegar. The sting of some jellyfish in waters off Australia and in Indo-Pacific areas can be more than a travel illness – it can be fatal. If any jellyfish sting results in shortness of breath, chest pain, or intense pain at the sting site, get help right away, says Dr. Friedman.
Bug bites are not just a nasty nuisance – they can spread travel sickness. Mosquitoes can spread West Nile virus and, in some parts of the world, malaria and dengue fever. You can catch Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever from a tick bite. But, there are ways to lessen your chances of getting bitten. “Wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants, and a hat, [and] tuck your shirt into your pants,” suggests Dr. Friedman. For healthy travel, avoid outdoor activities at dawn and in the evening, when some mosquitoes are more active. “Insect repellants containing DEET are by far the most effective,” he says. DEET can repel ticks, mosquitoes, and other insects when applied to skin or clothing.
More Tips for Healthy Travel
If you are traveling internationally, take extra precautions to protect against travel illness. “Visit your primary care physician or a travel clinic to make sure you are updated on required immunizations for your destination,” says Shin-Yu Lee, PharmD, an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at St. Louis College of Pharmacy in Missouri. Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel health page to look up recommended vaccinations. “Check well in advance because some vaccinations are not readily available,” Lee adds. If you need vaccinations, she recommends getting them at least two weeks before traveling so you can build up immunity.