Stay Healthy While You're Away
Common travel-related illnesses and how to prevent them
Whether you’re headed on a road trip or overseas, you may be more likely to get sick when you’re away from home. The excitement and stress of traveling, changes in sleep patterns, as well as the time your body needs to adjust to the food, water and air in a new environment may make you and your family more susceptible to illness. And as a greater number of people travel across the globe, the likelihood of infectious diseases spreading across continents is increasing.
The good news is that most illnesses and injuries can be prevented by planning early and learning about travel-related health risks and how to prepare for them before you leave. Common health problems are traveler’s diarrhea, altitude sickness and jet lag.
Traveler’s diarrhea (TD) is the most common illness affecting travelers. In fact, up to half of all international travelers develop diarrhea, which is often due to contaminated food or water. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of illness is especially high in developing countries of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. TD usually starts within the first week of travel but may occur at any time during a trip, even after you’ve returned home.
To protect yourself and your family, select foods and beverages with care when traveling abroad.
- Avoid foods that require a lot of handling or are uncooked or undercooked, especially meats and seafood.
- Stay away from uncooked vegetables and unpasteurized milk and cheeses. A good rule is to eat fruits and vegetables that have been washed in clean water and that you can peel yourself. Oranges, bananas and avocados are good options.
- Don’t eat foods or drink beverages from street vendors or open-air markets, especially those that seem unclean.
- Drink bottled water and beverages and stay away from ice. Hot tea and coffee are made with boiled water, so these are usually safe.
- If you are traveling with a baby, breastfeed or use formula mixed with boiled water.
High-altitude illness or altitude sickness can affect some travelers who head to the mountains or other destinations above 6,000 feet. The higher your elevation above sea level, the less oxygen there is in the air. For some people, dealing with the drop in barometric pressure and trying to function on low oxygen levels can be difficult and, in some cases, dangerous.
Common signs are headache, lightheadedness, weakness, trouble sleeping and an upset stomach, which can be alleviated by going to a lower altitude. More serious symptoms include difficulty breathing even when resting, coughing and confusion. If you or a fellow traveler experiences any of these, you should immediately get to a lower elevation and contact a doctor right away.
The best prevention is to give your body time to adjust to the change in elevation.
- Try not to push yourself too hard.
- Try to sleep at a lower elevation than where you are during the day.
- If you notice symptoms of altitude sickness, move to a lower altitude.
Jet lag is a sleep disorder that affects many travelers, especially those bound for destinations across multiple time zones. It can disrupt your internal clock and sleep patterns and result in irritability, excessive sleepiness during the day, difficulty concentrating, headaches, muscle soreness and stomach upsets.
- Get plenty of rest before leaving.
- Eat well-balanced meals.
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
- Set your watch to the new time.
- Adjust your sleeping and eating schedules to the time zone as soon as you arrive.
- Exercise when you can.
- Talk with your health care provider before using melatonin or any other sleep aids.
Other Steps to Keep You and Your Family Safe
- Get vaccinated. You may need to contact your health care provider to find out whether you need specific immunizations or medicines to help protect you from illness while traveling. See the Plan Ahead article within this guide for more information.
- Don’t take a vacation from your health. Even though you’re away from home, it’s important to get plenty of rest, eat a nutritious diet and build exercise into your travel plans–or continue your regular exercise routine. This will also help keep your immune system strong.
- Continue to exercise. Pack comfortable workout clothes and consider bringing a pedometer to track the number of steps you take each day. Exercise bands, which are easy to pack, will allow you to do resistance exercises.
- Prevent insect bites. if you are going to a country with an increased risk of insect-borne diseases, usually transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks and fleas. Use an insect repellent containing DEET.
- Remember sunscreen. Before venturing out to see the sites, be sure to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Also, wear protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses when outside during peak sun hours. Stay hydrated to avoid heat exhaustion if you’re in a warm-weather locale.
- Know where to go if you or a family member gets sick. It’s a good idea to check with your insurance carrier about coverage while you are traveling. If you’re in a foreign country, try to go to a hospital where English is spoken and there are U.S.-trained doctors. The U.S. embassy or consulate can help you and your family find medical care.
- Bring your medical history. To be prepared, carry a document with your medical history. Make sure this document includes:
- your primary care provider’s name and contact information
- your health insurance carrier
- extra claim forms
- a description of any ongoing health problems
- a list of medications you take and why
- any known allergies. This is especially important if you are traveling with anyone who has a chronic medical condition, such as diabetes or heart or lung problems.
© 2014. National Women's Health Resource Center, Inc. All rights reserved. All content provided in this guide is for information purposes only. Any information herein relating to specific medical conditions, preventive care and/or healthy lifestyles does not suggest individual diagnosis or treatment and is not a substitute for medical attention.