Research and planning ahead will provide prevention — and tell you where to go to get help when you need it.
Whenever you go on a trip, even close to home, it's wise to plan ahead to save time and potential aggravation.
If you’re traveling abroad, that same principle holds true to keep yourself healthy. Look before you leap, as the saying goes, and you’ll avoid a lot of potential pitfalls.
You have your passport, supplies, clothing, and accessories ready. Now make sure you’ve packed your health tips.
The first step is literally STEP. The U.S. State Department maintains the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to give you health information on the countries to which you’re traveling. (For those concerned about the Zika virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is tallying updates on areas where outbreaks are occurring.) By answering some questions, you get alerts on any specific health problems or diseases that are threats, and you can get information on where to go in case of emergencies.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is another good resource. It provides updates on various health topics for travelers and disease distributions maps so you know exactly where an outbreak is occurring.
The WHO also recommends that you see a doctor familiar with health issues while traveling at least a month in advance of your trip. That ensures you’ll receive any vaccinations you’ll need, and you’ll be able to learn about health issues travelers encounter, from a sprained ankle to Montezuma’s revenge.
One more organization than can give you some good information on vaccines, medicines, outbreaks, and other issues: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (You’ll want to see your doctor four to six weeks before you travel so any necessary vaccines have time to take effect.)
The CDC website will help you find a clinic wherever you travel, provide health education, tell you about health partnerships with international organizations, and offers an app to help you plan. Your local health department can also help.
Especially if you’re outside Europe, or even in some of the more remote parts of Europe, make sure you question all medical treatment, especially sterilization techniques.
Next, find out what your health insurance will pay for if you see a doctor while you're in another country. If it doesn’t cover you, or doesn’t cover hospital stays, you can purchase short-term travel insurance. Look for travel insurance on the State Department travel website.
Make sure you take enough of your regular medicines in their original containers along with extra prescriptions for them just in case. If you wear a medical information bracelet here, wear it there.
Bring your eyewear prescriptions and pack a first aid kit. That may seem redundant, but you’d be surprised about what you can’t find once you’re thousands of miles away from your local pharmacy.
Next, think about what you’re going to eat and drink. Many travelers end up sick during a great trip by gulping down whatever they find on the road. Bad move.
The host of a popular public television travel program, Rick Steves, says eat nutritiously and practice good judgment no matter where you are.
“Avoid unhealthy-looking restaurants,” he says. “Meat should be well cooked and, in some places, avoided altogether. Have ‘well done’ written on a piece of paper in the pertinent language and use it when ordering.” Pre-prepared foods sit and gather bacteria (a common cause of diarrhea), he adds.
Outside of Europe, be even more cautious, he says. “When in serious doubt, eat only thick-skinned fruit... peeled.”
He offers other tips that amount to keeping your immune system humming along. Those include keeping clean, exercising, getting enough sleep (easier said than done when you’re on the go), and “psychological pep talks.”
“Europe can do to certain travelers what southern France did to Vincent van Gogh,” he says. “Romantics can get the sensory bends, patriots can get their flags burned, and anyone can suffer from culture shock.”
There are plenty of good travel books available. Some cover health issues more than others. One in particular emphasizes health issues and is written by a doctor who specializes in travel. Its author, Deborah Mills, MD, is the medical director of Dr. Deb's Travel Medicine Clinics in Queensland, Australia, and a pioneer in travel medicine.
The book is a good starting point for your travel research. Mostly, research and preparation is what it takes to remain healthy.
March 26, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN