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Staying healthy while traveling

July 20, 2017 | Emilie Chow, MD
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Spend your vacation on the beach — not in the hospital.

Editor’s note: Nothing spoils a vacation quite like an unexpected illness or injury. When you’re traveling far from home – and a trusted physician – it’s important to have a plan to manage your health and handle medical emergencies.

UC Irvine Health internal medicine specialist Dr. Emilie Chow offers the following tips on what to know and what to do before departing.

What preparations should I make before leaving on my trip?

Consider your destination and itinerary.  

A trip to Rome or Tokyo, where you’ll stay in a hotel, requires different preparation than an eco-expedition to Brazil or a safari in the Serengeti.

Consult your health provider to ensure that your immunizations are up to date — and appropriate for your destination. You can also check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Traveler’s Health page for health alerts and suggested vaccinations.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine recommends pre-travel exams, especially for people planning international travel involving high-risk adventure or who have underlying chronic diseases. They are also recommended for young children, people with complicated itineraries and women who are pregnant or plan to get pregnant soon.

What can I do if I am traveling to a country where the Zika virus has spread?

The Zika virus has been linked to birth defects, so pregnant women should avoid travel to areas where Zika has spread. Women who are trying to become pregnant should talk to their doctor. The CDC has a thorough list of precautions (PDF) that travelers should heed when visiting countries with Zika.

What if I’m traveling to a country where yellow fever is spreading?

The CDC recently issued a travel notice for an ongoing outbreak of yellow fever in Brazil, where vaccinations are recommended. Yellow fever, a virus spread by mosquito bites, is also found in other parts of South America as well as in Africa.

Check out the CDCs tips for preventing yellow fever, which can cause fever, chills, headache, back and muscle aches, and more serious symptoms in some infected individuals.

Why do I need to worry about immunizations if I’m not going anywhere exotic?

If some of your routine vaccines have lapsed, you could be exposed to preventable diseases while traveling internationally.

For example, many people born before 1970 have not received the MMR (mumps-measles-rubella) vaccine, and older adults may be missing other vaccines that were developed in more recent years.

In the United States, flu season lasts from fall through winter. But since it may occur year-round in tropical or subtropical climates, anyone headed to such locations should have the most current influenza vaccine available. Healthy travelers over age 65 should also have the pneumococcal vaccine.

How do I manage prescriptions — and can I replace them if they get lost?

First, make sure you have enough of your prescribed medications to carry you through and beyond your trip. Keep all medications in their original bottles. Do not mix them together in a container or plastic bag.

Bring along your doctor’s contact information, so if your medications get lost, you may be able to call and get a short supply. Different countries have different prescription laws. Depending on the medication, some pharmacies abroad may allow you to buy the medicine without a prescription. How to dispose of your medication ›

Which over-the-counter medications should I take with me?

If you routinely take antacids or need antihistamines for allergies, bring them with you. Common pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, come in handy if your muscles become sore from hiking a national park or walking around Paris.

If you’re concerned about diarrhea (a common traveler’s ailment), bring along an anti-diarrheal drug such as Imodium. Motion sickness medicine may be helpful if you’re going on a cruise. And, of course, remember to bring mosquito repellent.

What should I do if I’m injured or become ill?

If it’s something minor, such as a cold or diarrhea, you can probably rest and get relief from the over-the-counter medications you’ve brought with you.

Something more serious – such as a broken bone, a bad wound or a high, persistent fever – may require you to find a nearby medical facility. When traveling abroad, you will find that emergency facilities operate differently in each country. Is it a cold or the flu? ›

Canada probably functions a lot like the United States, but in Botswana you may have to contact the State Department, the local embassy or consulate for help. If you have Internet access, you can check U.S. Embassy Worldwide for links to contacts in the region you’re visiting. You may want to consider purchasing traveler’s insurance — including evacuation insurance — in case you need to be flown to a healthcare facility outside the country for care.

How do I choose medicines abroad when they don’t match what’s available at home?

This is when technology can be useful. Do an internet search on the product to see whether the medication name in a different country is actually the same medication.

You can also contact your doctor to ask if the drug in question is an adequate substitute. If you’re in an English-speaking country such as Canada or the United Kingdom, you could probably just ask the pharmacist for advice.

Your trip should be a departure from your everyday life at home. Planning ahead can help you stay healthy, but if you encounter unforeseen health problems, advance preparations help you make thoughtful decisions when you need care.

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