By Tara Steitz, R.N., B.S.N.
Epidemiology Supervisor, Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas
Despite an airline industry slowdown at the moment, this time of year is notorious both for domestic and international business and pleasure travel for many Americans. The most important things to remember about healthy travel are to be proactive, prepared and protected when it comes to your health and the health of others around you.
The Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, suggests that you take a proactive approach and the necessary steps to anticipate any possible issues that could arise during your trip, especially if your travel plans will take you overseas or to underdeveloped countries. So before packing your bags and heading out without thinking, learn about your destination. Check for any health notices in that area and understand the types of disasters that may occur there — and be ready for anything. Understand the laws and culture of the places you will be visiting, making for a safer, more well-informed visit. Seeing a physician four to six weeks prior to your trip is also important so that you can be evaluated for wellness and take the necessary vaccinations or medication required for that travel area. And if you are sick, have been injured or recently had surgery, are pregnant, disabled or have a weakened immune system, you might want to avoid travel until your condition improves.
Being prepared will help you handle a situation better than if you are ill-equipped. Smart packing is essential to lowering the stress of traveling and will make the trip easier and more organized. Take the time necessary to pack the right things that will be useful on your trip. Purchase travel health insurance or evacuation insurance especially if you are doing more high risk activities or are elderly with medical problems. And don’t be afraid to tell someone along the way that you are ill if you become symptomatic with high fever, diarrhea, etc.
Place copies of your passport and travel documents in each piece of luggage in the event that you lose your original documents. And leaving a copy with a friend or relative at home is not a bad idea either. Pack a travel health kit that will support you in the event of illness or injury. Always check the Transportation Security Administration Web site at www.tsa.gov for updates on permitted and prohibited items, including medicines that you are allowed to carry onto an airplane.
It is also important to protect yourself. Practice healthy behaviors during your trip and after you return home. Monitor your own health during your trip. Don’t ignore signs or symptoms of illness and don’t take risks with your health and safety. For example, using insect repellent in malaria-prone regions and using sunscreen in sunny locales are only a few of the obvious protective — and proactive — measures a traveler should take. Also, be careful about the food and water supply. In some countries, you should only drink bottled or boiled water or carbonated (bubbly) drinks in cans or bottles. Avoid tap water and ice cubes. To help prevent travelers’ diarrhea the best advice is to — boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it!
Wash your hands often with soap and water; especially before eating or preparing food and after you use the bathroom, cough, or sneeze. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand gel (with at least 60 percent alcohol).
Try not to take risks with your health and safety by wearing protective gear during adventure activities such as while trekking, para-gliding and horseback riding. Be mindful of your alcohol consumption and definitely don’t drink and drive.
Lastly, pay attention to your health when you return home. If you are not feeling well, you should see a doctor and mention that you have recently traveled. You may wish to consult with an infectious disease doctor or travel medicine doctor. If you have visited a malaria-risk area it is very important that you continue taking your antimalarial drug for four weeks (if you are taking doxycycline or mefloquine) or seven days (if you are taking atovaquone/proguanil) after leaving the risk area. Malaria is a serious and even deadly illness. If you become ill with a fever or flu-like illness either while traveling in a malaria-risk area or after you return home (for up to one year), you should seek immediate medical attention and tell your physician your travel history.
For more detailed information visit the CDC Travelers’ Health Web site at http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel.
What to pack in your travel health kit
Pack your prescription medications in your carry-on luggage.
Pack copies of all prescriptions, including the generic names for medications.
Leave a copy of your prescriptions at home with a friend or relative.
Check with the American Embassy or Consulate to make sure that your medicines will be allowed into the country you are visiting.
Special prescriptions for the trip:
— Medicines to prevent malaria, if needed
— Antibiotic prescribed by your doctor for self-treatment of moderate to severe diarrhea
— Over-the-counter medicines
— Antidiarrheal medication
— Decongestant and/or Antihistamine
— Anti-motion sickness medication
— Pain or fever medicine
— Mild laxative
— Cough drops
— Antifungal and antibacterial ointments or creams
— 1 percent hydrocortisone cream
Other important items
Supplies to prevent illness or injury:
— Sunscreen (preferably SPF 15 or greater) that has both UVA and UVB protection
— Antibacterial hand wipes or alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol
— Lubricating eye drops
— Basic first-aid items (bandages, gauze, ace bandage, antiseptic, tweezers, scissors, cotton-tipped applicators)
— Aloe gel for sunburns
— Digital thermometer
— Health insurance card and claim forms
— Water purification tablets