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En español | Even though most Americans don’t consider shots or other health precautions necessary for domestic travel, there are infectious diseases within our borders that can lead to serious illness. The best way to prevent travel diseases is to practice common sense and proper hygiene: wash your hands; mind what you eat and drink; use insect repellent; avoid direct contact with people who seem ill; and stay home if you’re sick yourself.
You also need to be informed and prepared. Research travel diseases in your destination on the Website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And map out the region, particularly if it’s remote, so that you know where to find medical care.
In addition to being mindful of road accidents, which kill thousands in the United States each year, and other health travel conditions (such as blood clots and snake bites), here are several common U.S. travel diseases to be mindful of.
1. Lyme Disease
It’s the country’s most common tick-related illness, with some 30,000 cases a year. The areas with the highest incidences are the Northeast, North-Central, and Mid-Atlantic states as well as northern California — usually in forested areas and in summer months. Ticks acquire the infection from rodents and deer and transmit it through a bite. Initially there are flu-like symptoms accompanied by a rash. Later stages include joint pain, heart and neurologic problems, and potentially severe and lasting conditions. Early treatment with antibiotics can lead to full recovery.
After being in wooded areas, carefully check your clothes and skin for ticks. If you see an attached tick, use tweezers to remove it, close to the skin and with a firm and constant tug. Don’t burn, squeeze, or jerk the tick, or it might release its fluid into your body. If concerned about the type of tick or how long it was attached (longer is more dangerous), consult a health-care provider, who might prescribe preventative antibiotics. If a rash develops, seek care immediately.
2. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Although it exists throughout the United States, RMSF is most common in the Southeast and South-Central regions, particularly in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Like Lyme disease, it’s a tick-borne illness that occurs primarily in the spring and summer.
RMSF begins with flu-like symptoms, a fever, and, a rash. The rash, which starts on the wrists and ankles and spreads centrally, can develop later, making early detection difficult. Immediate treatment with antibiotics prevents progression to a possibly fatal outcome. Follow the same precautions and procedures as described above under Lyme disease.
3. West Nile Virus
WNV is transmitted by mosquitoes, which pick it up from infected birds. Most cases go undetected as there are no symptoms at all. When symptoms do manifest, they can do so as the milder West Nile Fever (fever, fatigue, head and body aches), which generally doesn’t require treatment, or the more serious and far more rare West Nile Disease (encephalitis, meningitis, and other nervous-system diseases), which gets only supportive care but can require hospitalization.
Outbreaks can occur anywhere in warmer months, particularly near standing water, but are common in the temperate southern states. In these areas, use insect repellant and, when camping, mosquito netting. Avoid being outdoors when bugs are most apt to bite (e.g., dusk), and wear clothing that covers your arms and legs.
4. Diarrheal Diseases
These are perhaps the most common travel diseases and can be bacterial (Salmonella), viral (norovirus), or parasitic (Giardia). Most cause self-limited illness, and treatment is primarily supportive. The best prevention is good hygiene: ensuring that your produce is thoroughly washed or peeled, that your meat is well cooked, and that your hands are washed regularly and vigorously. If you're traveling in the mountains, do not drink untreated spring water — often the breeding ground of the hardy Giardia parasite. Seek care immediately if diarrhea is persistent; bloody; and/or associated with severe vomiting, fever, or abdominal pain.
A respiratory illness and seasonal killer with many strains, influenza can be easily transmitted in confined spaces, such as a plane, making it a travel disease of sorts. Although it caused a scare in recent years, the H1N1 (swine flu) strain is usually milder than Influenza A but sometimes more lethal in the very young, the very old, and those with chronic conditions. The best prevention? An annual flu vaccination.