En español | Even the most seasoned international travelers are likely to think twice about world travel when health issues like the 2016 Zika virus outbreak grab headlines. A plethora of concerns can crop up as more Americans travel overseas, venturing off the beaten path and engaging in more active pursuits in far-flung destinations.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to keep illness from spoiling a vacation. "I like to say our job is to empower people and enable them to travel," says Phyllis Kozarsky, M.D., a travel consultant at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. "But I think travelers need to have their eyes open. In the same way people are paying more attention to travel security, they need to pay attention to travel health."
Follow these steps to stay healthy and happy abroad.
Before You Go
- Educate yourself
If you're heading to exotic or developing destinations, your first stop should be the CDC website (cdc.gov/travel). Its user-friendly, searchable database offers country-specific advice on recommended or required vaccinations, along with information on prevalent illnesses and other potential hazards. The World Health Organization (who.int) also addresses health-related travel concerns on its site.
- Check with a medical professional
One visit with your regular doctor may be all you need. But for trips to less touristed countries, you may want to consult a travel-medicine specialist. "A travel doctor is more attuned to changing alerts," says Mary-Louise Scully, M.D., director of the Travel and Tropical Medicine Center at the Sansum Clinic in Santa Barbara, Calif. "For example, Angola is having one of the biggest yellow fever outbreaks in 30 years. That wouldn't be on the radar of a typical doctor."
Specialists are up on the latest advances in medications, Scully adds. The antimalarial drug Lariam, for instance, can have such nasty side effects that some travelers would rather risk the disease than take the medication to prevent it. A newer drug, Malarone, has fewer side effects.
Make sure routine vaccinations are up to date. This includes your annual flu shot. And don't wait until right before you leave. The best time to see a doctor for shots is four to six weeks before traveling, because some vaccines require a series of inoculations. (Note that the yellow fever vaccine must be administered by a registered provider. See the CDC website for a directory.)
- Check with your insurance provider
Will you be covered abroad? In the specific countries you're visiting? If not, look into buying a supplemental policy. If you're bound for an area where quality health care is lacking, evacuation insurance coverage will pay the cost of transport for treatment elsewhere. Even if you have insurance, be aware that you may be required to pay medical costs up front in some foreign destinations.
Pack prescription medications in your carry-on bag. And take along any over-the-counter medications you're likely to need. The CDC recommends a veritable medicine chest of remedies in its Travel Health Kit checklist (wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/pack-smart#travelhealthkit).
While You're Away
- Wash your hands
Make it a practice to wash frequently and always before eating. Carry antiseptic wipes or hand sanitizer for times when washing facilities are limited. Antibacterial wipes are handy for swabbing airline tray tables and other surfaces where germs linger. Don't worry as much about breathing masks and "immune-boosting" pill supplements. "You see people on planes wearing these contraptions and popping pills that are supposed to keep them from getting sick. But a lot of it comes down to luck," Kozarsky says.
- Watch what you eat and drink
A number of bacteria and parasites that cause diarrhea, gastroenteritis and even hepatitis can be spread by contaminated food and water. Stick to bottled water unless you're absolutely certain the tap water is safe to drink. Ditto for brushing your teeth — and keep your mouth closed in the shower. When in doubt about food, heed the mantra "Boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it." Eat only fruits you can peel yourself. Avoid buffets where food has been sitting out for a long time. If partaking at street stands, make sure food is freshly cooked and served hot.
Wear insect repellent
This goes for anyplace where mosquito-borne illnesses are an issue. The Zika virus has caused particular alarm because of its link to the devastating birth defect microcephaly; the neurological disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome; and the fact that the disease can be sexually transmitted. But other mosquito-borne illnesses, such as malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya, also have debilitating effects. For adults, the CDC recommends using a repellent with 20 to 50 percent DEET. Repellents with the active ingredient picaridin (up to 15 percent) may have to be reapplied more often. For even more protection, spray clothing with a repellent containing permethrin.
When You Return
If you develop a fever within 30 days of returning from a region where malaria is present, see a doctor right away. The same goes for gastrointestinal issues lasting two weeks or more. Rashes and other skin issues may be less cause for concern, but if they're persistent, check with your doctor