Getting on a jet plane? With the outbreak ongoing, many people are canceling trips to China.
But under ordinary circumstances, should we worry about getting sick while traveling? Yes and no. Obviously, you don’t want to worry as that can ruin your vacation. You should, however, take some simple precautions.
Get Your Shots
Some destinations, you’re fine with your routine vaccinations (but do make sure they are up-to-date. Some older Americans may not be properly protected against measles). For others, you will need extra shots, especially if traveling to the tropics.
If traveling during the winter, get your flu shot at least two weeks before the trip.
You should book an appointment with your doctor four to six weeks before traveling. Tell your doctor where you are going and whether your destination country requires vaccinations, such as yellow fever. For some trips you may also need anti-malarials.
Because insurance companies can be difficult, if you are on any kind of long-term medication, it may help to get a second prescription. (I’ve had pharmacists cancel a refill request because insurance wouldn’t pay for it. Without telling me).
Check Your Insurance
How well will your health insurance cover you when overseas? If the answer is “Not well enough,” then you need to get travel insurance as well.
Make sure that you are covered for flareups of chronic conditions and that if you need to be evacuated home that’s also covered.
Protect Your Meds
I have a chronic condition. One of the most terrifying moments of my life was when airport security in Poland attempted to confiscate the medication I have to take every day. I had no way of getting more for three days, which was more than long enough for me to end up in the emergency room. I have no idea why he acted like that, but I’m sure I was acting very suspiciously when I burst into tears from the literal threat to my life.
The medication was in its original container and the incident should never have happened, but always keep your meds in their original container.
If you have liquid medication, make sure the TSA knows and bring a copy of the prescription or a note from your doctor.
Never check prescription medication. Ever. Including gate checking.
Water, Water, Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink
In the U.S. and U.K. we’re used to being able to turn on the tap and get potable water.
That’s not the case everywhere. Check whether the tap water is safe to drink in your destination. In some cases you may even need bottled water to brush your teeth.
In others, brushing your teeth is fine but you may not want to drink it or use ice in your drinks.
Sometimes the water may be very safe, but you still don’t want to drink it. In Reykjavik, the water tastes and smells of brimstone! I didn’t mind, although it made for many jokes between me and my husband, but I can see how it would bother some people. It was perfectly safe, the result of the hot water coming directly from a thermal source. Strange mineral flavors are also not uncommon. I’ve also been in places where drinking tap water provided in a restaurant was fine, but not from your room tap; the restaurants routinely use extra filters.
Worried about the Mexican Two-Step?
So, we just talked about water. But the truth is, if you get an upset stomach while overseas it’s more likely to be the food (or norovirus. Worst thing that ever happened to me on vacation).
There are two factors here: Improperly prepared food and food your system is simply not used to.
Be wary of street vendors; they may not have the hand washing facilities that they really need. If you do want to try that street food, go for the vendor who has the longest lines. First of all, popular generally means good. Second of all, it means the food hasn’t been sitting. If you buy fruit from a roadside stand, wash it (using bottled water if you don’t trust the tap water) and peel it yourself.
Buffets can also be a problem, especially those western-style buffets advertised for tourists. (Besides, why would you want to eat bad American food?)
Oh, and avoid raw milk. Please avoid raw milk.
Also bear in mind that strange and exotic foods might be something your body isn’t equipped to digest, or you might have a food allergy or intolerance you didn’t know about. If you have a sudden reaction to a meal it’s probably an allergy or intolerance to an ingredient you’ve never had before.
Things to Pack
Having covered the major issues, here’s a bit of a health checklist:
- Any prescription medications, including meds you take “as needed” such as high strength antacids.
- Hand sanitizer. You may also be able to buy this at your destination in a drug store, but it’s a good idea to take at least a couple of small bottles. Use it before your meals if you’re suspicious of the water.
- Anti-diarrheal medication, just in case.
- Emergen-C or other electrolyte packages. If you do get sick, dehydration can be a huge problem, and electrolytes really help.
- Sanitary wipes. These are for cleaning the tray table on the plane before you use it. Some people also like to wipe off the seatbelt bucket.
- A Vitamin C supplement. Start taking this a few days before your trip. Don’t megadose, though, as that can make you sick…don’t go above 1,000mg a day.
- Water purifying tablets if the tap water isn’t safe to drink or if you plan on camping.
- Band-Aids or plasters.
- Your preferred mild painkiller.
- If you plan on getting on a boat at all, your preferred motion sickness medicine. (If you get severe motion sickness and want to sail, talk to your doctor at the pre-trip visit about a prescription, especially if you are one of those people who can’t take dramamine). Cruise ships generally have motion sickness remedies available, but they’re almost always dramamine or dramamine. As dramamine makes some people worse…
- Insect bite cream. Calamine lotion is good as it will relieve insect bites, poison ivy, stinging nettle…
- Sunscreen. At least SPF 15.
- A good insect repellent. If camping, consider DEET-infused clothing and make sure to spray your boots, pants cuffs, and hat with DEET-based repellent to repel ticks.
- If you wear contacts, take a pair of glasses. If you wear glasses, take a second pair of glasses. Things happen.
- If you have any thought you might need them, condoms.
My final tip:
Don’t let fears of dirty drinking water or iffy food stop you from going on the trip you’re dreaming of. The vast majority of people don’t get sick, and even if you do pick something up it’s usually really minor.