10 ways to avoid travel health mistakes

When we’re on vacation or on a business trip, the last thing we want to deal with is an unexpected illness or injury. However, many people aren’t fully informed about the risks they’ll face — or how to avoid them.

So how can we better protect our health when we travel? For answers, we turned to travel health expert Dr. Jay Keystone, currently Director of Medisys Travel Health Clinic, Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto and staff physician at the Centre for Travel and Tropical Medicine at the Toronto General Hospital.

Here’s how to avoid the health mistakes many travellers make:

See an expert

Are you armed with the right information to stay healthy while you’re away? Most people skip a crucial step in their trip planning: less than 15 per cent of travellers visit a travel health clinic, according to Dr. Keystone.

Why is this number troubling? Travel health is a specialized field of medicine, and these doctors have more detailed knowledge than a family doctor or pharmacy. Travel health experts can provide country-specific information such as what threats you’re likely to face, what to expect when you get there and which immunizations and preventative medications you need.

In addition, doctors can make recommendations based on a personal risk assessment, including factors like your age and medical history. “One size fits all” recommendations may not apply — for instance, the yellow fever vaccine may pose more of a danger to older travellers than the disease itself.

You may even save yourself some running around because clinics have vaccines, medications and travel health supplies on hand.

Go early

You’ve decided to see an expert — but don’t wait until the last minute or you risk not getting the preventatives you need. Some vaccines require multiple doses administered over a period of weeks in order to obtain the full effect.

How soon should you go? Many travel health sources recommend seeing a travel doctor at least 6-8 weeks before departure, but Dr. Keystone advises that older travellers should go at least two months beforehand.

“People over the age of 65 don’t respond to vaccines the way that younger travellers do,” he warns. “As a result, they need to get their shots earlier.”

Get your body ready

What activities you plan to do during your trip are just as important to prepare for as where you’re going. After all, strength and endurance don’t suddenly appear when the plane takes off.

“You have to think about what type of trip you’re taking,” Dr. Keystone advises. “If you’re going to be doing a lot of walking or physical activity, then you need to make sure you’re fit before you go.”

Physical activity, including strength training for balance and endurance, is especially important for older travellers who are more at risk for injury.

In addition, good footwear is a must, particularly if you have diabetes. While you’re getting some exercise, make sure to break in any new footwear you plan to pack.

Pack your meds properly

What about medications you take on a regular basis? Dr. Keystone advises taking some extra care when you’re packing so you won’t have to fall back on the availability and quality of drugs at your destination.

“Medications in other countries aren’t always the same,” he warns. “The quality might not be as good, or they might be counterfeit.”

To avoid losing medications in lost luggage, always pack your medication in your carry-on bag (or at least keep a healthy supply with you at all times). Keep your medications in their original, labeled containers and carry a list of your prescription medications. You may need to show these items to airport security or to a doctor aboard.

(For more information, check out our earlier article on Taking medication on holiday.)

Carry preventatives

Our travel packs should include some key items such as anti-histamines, a mild laxative (for travellers’ constipation), pain killers and first aid items. If you’re travelling to remote areas, your doctor may also recommend carrying a course of antibiotics or antivirals (like Tamiflu) for self-treatment.

Another “Don’t leave home without it” item: treatment for the dreaded traveller’s diarrhea. In addition to packing a stomach remedy like Imodium, Dr. Keystone also recommends bringing along antibiotics for self-treatment to prevent severe dehydration. (Remember: traveller’s diarrhea is caused by bacteria, not a virus). People who have diabetes or who are at a high risk for severe dehydration can even take antibiotics as a preventative measure.

If you’re prescribed preventative medications like anti-malarial pills, it’s important to take them as directed.

Be water smart

Staying hydrated is essential — but make sure to do it safely to avoid traveller’s diarrhea. This unpleasant condition can last a few days, and it’s usually picked up from contaminated food and drink. What’s the best way to avoid tummy troubles while getting plenty of fluids?

“Only drink commercially-bottled beverages, and skip the ice,” Dr. Keystone recommends. Likewise, travellers should also avoid raw or undercooked foods, and limit or avoid salads.

And it’s okay to have a little salt on your food — it will help replace the electrolytes you lose when you sweat a lot.

Avoid bug bites

A bottle of insect repellent can also help stave off the health risks that come from pesky bug bites. Mosquitoes and tics can transmit harmful illnesses like malaria and dengue fever. These pests usually appear at night and in the early morning, but can also show up after noon.

Make sure you know how to evade the bugs — like wearing long sleeved shirts and pants when outdoors, and ensuring that all windows are covered by screens or nets.

Ride safely

Think illness is the only threat? One of the biggest risks to your health and safety when you’re abroad is actually vehicle accidents. Dr. Keystone notes that 40 per cent of people who die abroad are killed on the roads, compared to the 1 per cent of deaths that come from infections.

Road conditions in some countries can be especially hazardous, so do a little checking before renting a car or boarding a bus. Stay safe by avoiding unsafe vehicles and dangerous road conditions, whether you’re the driver or passenger.

Furthermore, “Never travel by road after dark in rural areas,” Dr. Keystone warns.

Get follow-up care

Not feeling “right” when you return? You may have brought home an unpleasant souvenir — but it might not show up right away. Dr. Keystone recommends seeing your doctor if you feel unwell within two months of returning from your trip, especially if you have a fever.

“We can treat other ailments as well, but if you have a fever you need attention immediately,” Dr. Keystone warns. “Malaria can kill in three days.”

When you go to your appointment, make sure your doctor knows the details of your trip — like where and when you travelled, especially if you’ve been to areas that are prone to malaria or other illnesses.

Dodge the flu

We’re gearing up for a double-whammy of a flu season at home, but we should be trying to avoid influenza all year long when we travel. About 2 per cent of travellers will pick it up on vacation, Dr. Keystone notes.

It’s not just a concern in countries whose seasons are opposite to our own because tropical climates don’t have a defined flu season. Thanks to warm temperatures, viruses stick around all year long. In other words, you might consider getting a flu shot during our summer if you’re at high risk for complications — and take precautions like washing your hands frequently and avoiding people who are sick.

So what’s the bottom line? An injury or illness abroad can be more than just an inconvenience. It’s best to do some homework well in advance, and seek advice of a professional to make sure you know how to stay clear of any risks and illness.

For more information, visit the Medisys Travel Health Clinic website .

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ ArtmannWitte

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