The last time you took a trip, how well did you plan ahead of time? If you had all your clothes and travel documents packed up and ready to go, and the trip went smoothly, in general you’d probably say you planned things out pretty well, right? But, thinking back, did you have anything planned out for a medical emergency or health crisis? If not, don’t feel bad—you’re not along.
Whether traveling domestically or abroad, travelers often neglect to plan for health and safety issues that present themselves along the way. In a June 2015 survey conducted by Kelton Global and sponsored by Teladoc, a provider of telehealth medical visits, 45% of Americans reported that they or a travel partner became ill and had to seek professional medical help while traveling. That makes for a disappointing travel experience.
Being ready for a health or safety emergency requires thorough research and organization, but should something go wrong, you’ll be thankful you were prepared. So before embarking on your next adventure, consider some key health and safety tips.
Before You Go
Give It a Shot
Americans who travel within the continental United States rarely worry about contracting illnesses that pose significant health threats. However Dr. Jack Cornwell, medical director at CareWell Urgent Care in Boston, Mass., says that if you’re planning a trip overseas, you should take steps to prevent illness and injury by learning more about the possible risks for each region you plan to visit.
“Unfortunately, some international travelers think that because there’s little-to-no risk of contracting certain diseases in the U.S. they don’t need to protect themselves from those illnesses when they go abroad,” Cornwell says. “It’s always best to check with your local primary doctor or urgent care center for all of your travel vaccination needs.”
Give Yourself a Boost
In addition to getting the recommended vaccines, you can also boost your immune system with some natural remedies. Dr. Sarath Malepati, manager of the PPC Group in Los Angeles, recommends getting plenty of rest, eating a balanced diet and staying hydrated.
“Think of water as the fuel powering the white blood cells that compose your immune system,” he says.
Consider using herbal products and probiotics—good bacteria and yeasts that help to keep the gut healthy—to prevent illness.
“Herbal preparations can be used, including Echinacea purpurea (also known as Purple Coneflower),” Malepati says. “Probiotics can also be helpful in regulating your gut flora when eating new foods in new environments.”
You can also look into an immune support pack—a product formulated by Malepati. The product helps to minimize the overuse of antibiotics when problems like traveler’s diarrhea arise.
“Antibiotics do not treat viruses. Nevertheless they are often inappropriately used in these situations,” he says. “A better choice would be immune support in combination with probiotics and hydration.”
Always consult a physician about immune-boosting products that will work best for you before just taking any old vitamin or supplement.
Plan for Emergencies
No matter where your travels take you, you should always carry medical identification.
“A wallet-sized health information card containing a list of your health problems, allergies and medications is ideal,” Malepati says. “Medical bracelets can also be helpful.”
In addition to medical identification, familiarize yourself with the medical resources available in the region you’re planning to travel.
“Know where the large hospitals and medical centers are in areas where you are traveling. These are generally the safest places to visit and receive care,” Malepati says.
Megan O’ Sullivan, a health communications specialist for the CDC recommends travelers put together a medical emergency pack and making an emergency plans before heading out on their trip.
“It’s smart to plan ahead to deal with the possibility of illness during a trip. This may include packing a travel health kit, considering travel health and medical evacuation insurance and knowing how to get medical care while abroad,” she says.
If traveling to a tropical destination, Malepati suggests also packing mosquito nets and bug repellent appropriate to the region.
Carrying one’s medical health information is a must, but where should the information be stored to guarantee easy access during an emergency?
“Emergency workers always check wallets and purses during medical emergencies. This is the best place to keep medical information visible and accessible,” Dr. Malapati says.
In the event of a medical emergency in another country, there are a number of resources available to American travelers.
“Know where the local U.S. consulate or embassy is located. The American Citizens Services unit of any U.S. embassy is a helpful resource to Americans when traveling internationally,” Malepati says.
The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers’ website, IAMAT.org, is another helpful resource. It includes a directory of English-speaking medical providers in specific regions, and provides information on health risks in each country.
You’re On Your Way
Avoid Motion Sickness
Most travelers have experienced some form of motion sickness. According to the CDC, while anyone can develop motion sickness, there are some who are more susceptible, like children ages 2 to 12; women, especially when pregnant or menstruating; people who are prone to getting migraines. Some prescriptions can also worsen motion sickness. While motion sickness can be eased by a variety of over-the-counter medications, some travelers prefer natural remedies that are less likely to cause drowsiness.
Keith Shadle, an oceanographer who travels domestically and internationally is no stranger to motion sickness, but he’s come up with a few ways to ease the symptoms.
“Eat some ginger,” he says. “Candied ginger can be bought at any grocery store before you travel, and it is much better than Dramamine or any non-drowsy pill you can take.”
Shadle also takes some cues from professional seamen who avoid motion sickness.
“Keep your head up and stare at the horizon if you’re feeling ill from motion sickness,” Shadle says. “It’s what sailors do at sea to prevent seasickness. I do the same when on a bumpy bus in a foreign land.”
Fight the Jet Lag
Jet lag is most common to travelers crossing several time zones. It’s not a serious condition, yet it can affect a person’s physical and mental performance the first few days of the trip.
The CDC offers tips on minimizing jet lag before, during and after arriving at the destination, including getting plenty of exercise, going to bed one hour earlier for a few days and eating a balanced diet before the trip.
During the flight, avoid eating large meals, drink plenty of water, walk around periodically and sleep, if possible. After arriving at the destination, avoid caffeine and alcohol until acclimated, take short naps during the day, follow local time for meals and stay hydrated.
When You Arrive
Proper nutrition and hydration are vital to one’s health, especially when traveling. You want to make sure you’re eating the right foods and maintaining a balanced diet.
“Eat a balanced diet rich in antioxidants, vitamins C, D and B, and immune-boosting minerals such as zinc is critical,” Malepati says. “Ensure you’re adequately hydrated and have access to clean water.”
Ligaya Malones is a frequent traveler and writes for the blog “The Curious Passport.” Her international travels have taught her to come prepared for just about any dietary situation that may arise. Her solution: Find healthy solutions that are easy to pack, like smoothie and juice mixes that contain a combination of greens and other nutrients.
“I pack to-go packets of daily greens and vitamins that I can mix into a smoothie or juice, in destinations that are either pretty meat-heavy or lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables,” she says. “I also pack digestive enzymes to help ease my stomach into a new diet abroad.”
Some foods and beverages should be avoided when traveling overseas. According to the CDC’s Can I Eat This? mobile application, hot food is generally safe to eat, but raw food, street foods and bushmeat should be avoided. The same is true of beverages. Hot drinks, canned or bottled drinks, milk, and alcohol are generally safe. However, tap water, fountain drinks, fresh-squeezed juice and ice may make you sick or cause other health issues.
While travelers can get ill from eating undercooked foods or making contact with communicable diseases, insect bites can also place an international traveler at high risk says Cornwell.
“For example, if your trip takes you to China or other rural parts of Asia, all it takes is the bite of an infected mosquito to give you Japanese encephalitis,” he says. “This disease shouldn’t be taken lightly as 25% of those who contract JE eventually die from the disease.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mosquito repellents that contain DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus and para-menthane-diol provide the best protection against mosquitos.
Before and during travel, take a look at the CDC’s Travelers’ Health website to determine which potentially harmful insects, wildlife and plants live in a region.
“You’ll find destination pages with country-specific health recommendations, including travel health notices alerting travelers to destination-specific risks,” O’Sullivan says.