For travelers, staying healthy while traveling is the most important thing to plan and prepare for. With all the excitement associated with going to a distant place and seeing new things, many people tend to underestimate the importance of healthy travel until it is too late.
So, while you may be aiming to tread to this year’s dreamland, you may well end up experiencing a nightmare if you do not take the necessary precautions and consider the importance of healthy travel.
Of course, every civilized destination offers medical care in case of emergency. And your health insurance might even cover your expenses fully. However, losing precious time and energy in combating an illness when you should be enjoying yourself is something that need not happen.
With the increasing number of travelers around the world, the medical community has observed an increase in travel-related illnesses and infections. As a result, many countries have even accepted a new branch of medicine called travel medicine.
So, before you pack your luggage and set off on your vacation, it is best that you become better informed about the most common travel health issues and consult a travel medicine healthcare professional.
Why Traveling Puts You at Higher Risk of Illness
Traveling (in any form) can take a toll on the body in many ways. The very fact that you are going to a different location, time zone, or climate may result in some common traveler’s health issues, such as jet lag, discomfort, or altitude sickness.
In some more serious cases, your body may react in such a way that you may need to seek immediate medical attention. What is more, there are cases where travelers get exposed to bacteria and viruses which do not exist in their home countries.
What the locals are already immune to (or immunized against) may be something your body has never encountered before. This could lead to traveler’s diarrhea or some more serious issues that may even result in hospitalization.
Finally, there are the risks of diseases caused by contaminated food or water. These can be especially common in hotter climates and less-developed countries where food and water standards are not being enforced very well.
So, what are the most common health risks related to traveling, and how can you prevent them?
The Most Common Health Issues Travelers Face
Motion sickness (travel sickness or sea sickness) can happen in any kind of vehicle. It is caused by the continual motion of the vehicle which disturbs the inner ear and can result in nausea and even vomiting.
The most common symptoms of motion sickness include:
- Short breath;
- A general feeling of discomfort;
- Feeling unwell (malaise); and
Also known as time zone change syndrome or desynchronosis, jet lag happens when you travel quickly from one time zone to another. By doing so, your circadian rhythm, also known as the body clock, experiences disruptions which result in what is known as a circadian rhythm disorder.
Jet lag happens when you travel in a west-east or east-west direction. Traveling eastward worsens the symptoms even more, as our bodies have less time to recover because hours of the day you are used to experiencing are essentially lost.
The symptoms of jet lag include:
- Sleep disturbances, insomnia, lethargy, and fatigue;
- Confusion, irritability, difficulty focusing;
- A heavy head, headaches;
- Dizziness, unsettled feeling;
- Loss of appetite;
- Diarrhea or constipation; and
- Mild depression.
Traveler’s Diarrhea (TD)
Traveler’s diarrhea may happen because of the stress from traveling or a change in diet. However, in most cases, it is the result of an infection caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. You can typically develop traveler’s diarrhea by ingesting food or water that has been contaminated with organisms from feces or other sources of pathogens, especially in high-risk countries.
It generally takes the body a couple of days to fight these pathogens off. However, TD can sometimes become more serious and lead to dehydration, vomiting, fever, and bloody stools which may point to the need for immediate medical attention.
The most common symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea are:
- Abrupt onset of diarrhea (three or more loose stools a day);
- An urgent need to defecate;
- Abdominal cramps;
- Vomiting; and
Altitude sickness is a health issue which happens to people who ascend to a great height rapidly, but it may also happen when you climb too high and stay there for too long.
The main reason it happens is the lack of oxygen we experience when at greater heights because of lower air pressure. At about 18,000 ft (5,500 m), each breath we take has around half of the oxygen we normally breathe.
To avoid altitude sickness, it is essential that you acclimatize yourself as you climb and not stay at great heights for too long. In the most severe cases, staying at high altitudes can lead to fatal health issues, such as fluid in the lungs, high altitude cerebral edema (swelling of the brain), and high altitude pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs).
The most common symptoms of altitude sickness include:
- Lack of appetite;
- Nausea and vomiting;
- Pins and needles;
- Shortness of breath;
- Swelling of the hands, feet, and face;
- General malaise; and
Altitude sickness can also come with more serious symptoms, such as a fever, persistent dry cough (often with pinkish sputum), and panting even while resting – all of which indicate the presence of fluid in the lungs.
Other more serious symptoms can include a persistent headache, unsteady gait or clumsiness, dizziness, numbness, increased vomiting, and gradual loss of consciousness. These all indicate signs of swelling of the brain.
Depending on where you travel, you might have to be prepared for some diseases your home area might not be accustomed to, such as malaria. Malaria has been found to be one of the most common insect-borne diseases contracted by travelers, with around 30,000 travelers getting it annually.
The clinical symptoms of malaria include:
- High fever;
- Abdominal pain; and
However, do not underestimate the dangers of a hedonistic holiday, too. Sexually transmitted diseases can happen when you are not careful enough. And they do not have to be limited to sexual contact: you can get some of them from tattooing, ear piercings, acupuncture, and similar invasive activity.
STDs can include:
- Hepatitis B and C;
- Human Papilloma Virus (HPV); and
- Genital herpes.
How to Stay Healthy While Traveling
Dealing with Motion Sickness
There are a few ways you can prevent and combat motion sickness. To prevent it, you can follow these steps:
- Make sure you have a view of the horizon and what lies ahead;
- When on a plane, sit by the window in a seat over the wings;
- In a car, sit in the front seat;
- On a boat, go up on the deck and watch the horizon;
- Avoid reading;
- Avoid watching or talking to passengers who are suffering from motion sickness;
- Do not eat heavy, spicy meals before and during travel; and
- Avoid strong odors before and during the travel;
If you are suffering from motion sickness, you can take the following steps to combat it:
- Look at the horizon. This will help you reorient your inner sense of balance;
- Keep your eyes closed or take a nap (especially on a ship).
- Chew something. It can be chewing gum or some snacks.
- Get some fresh air. Alternatively, direct the air vents toward your face.
- Eat some ginger. It has been found to reduce motion sickness.
- Practice acupressure therapy. Acupressure is a great way to fight nausea caused by motion sickness.
Preventing Jet Lag
Jet lag is unpleasant if you are caught unprepared. Luckily, there are ways you can prevent most of its effects even before you take flight. Here are some tips:
- Start adjusting your sleep schedule while at home several days before the flight. Get up and go to bed early for an eastward flight, and get up and go to bed later for a westward flight.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol on the days leading up to your flight, during the flight, and after your flight. They are known to worsen jet lag symptoms.
- Stay well hydrated before, and especially during and after the flight.
- When in flight, sleep when it is nighttime at your destination and take strategic 20-minute naps at other times to reduce sleepiness.
- When you arrive, avoid heavy meals or strenuous activities.
- Spend time outdoors during daytime and go to bed only at the “normal” time for the time zone.
How to Prevent and Deal with Traveler’s Diarrhea
First, you need to be aware of the high-risk areas for traveler’s diarrhea. These include:
- Central America;
- South America;
- The Middle East;
- Eastern Europe;
- South Africa; and
- A few Caribbean islands.
Even when you travel to less risky areas, the rule is “boil it, cook it, peel it or leave it.” Even then, however, there is a possibility that you might get sick. Accordingly, you should bring some probiotics with you just in case.
You should also generally avoid eating food from street vendors, unpasteurized milk and dairy products (including ice cream), raw or undercooked meat, fish, and shellfish, sauces and buffet offerings at room temperature, or salads and fruits that you cannot peel.
Stick to food which is well cooked and hot and fruits and vegetables which you can peel yourself.
When it comes to water, it is best to drink bottled water and avoid locally made ice cubes. If the tap water is drinkable, you could sterilize it by boiling it or leaving it in a copper water bottle for some time before drinking it. The copper bottle will alkalize the water and help eliminate bacteria.
Dealing with Altitude Sickness
If your altitude sickness symptoms are mild, you can continue climbing, but at a much slower pace. This will help your body acclimatize more easily. However, it could be a good idea to stop for a while or descend if your symptoms do not disappear.
In the case of more severe symptoms, you need to rest, drink plenty of fluids, avoid smoking, and preferably descend by at least 1,000 ft (305m). If your symptoms become severe, you should descend 2,000 ft (610m) as soon as possible.
Drinking plenty of fluids is essential when dealing with altitude sickness. So, this could be a perfect time for some copper-infused water.
Healthy Travel Tips: What to Do Before and During Your Travels
Being healthy before your travels often translates into staying healthy during your vacation. This, of course, means keeping up a strong immune system through exercise and healthy eating.
However, you want your travel to be as pleasant and care-free as possible. So, investing some time to research and consult with your doctor goes a long way to staying healthy on vacation.
Before your travel, try to find relevant information about the destination’s hygiene conditions, climate, and other special conditions. If there is a travel medicine health professional in your area, make sure to make an appointment at least six to eight weeks before you go away. They will recommend vaccines you will need and identify the preventive measures you should take.
Pack up some vitamins, like Vitamin C, B vitamins, and Omega 3 fatty acids, and do not forget to take some probiotics to combat possible traveler’s diarrhea.
When you arrive, make sure to avoid eating raw or semi-cooked food. Avoid buying food from street vendors and aim for fruits which you can peel.
When it comes to water, it is important to stay well hydrated. However, you should be careful as to what kind of water you are drinking. If the tap water is considered generally safe to drink, you might want to either boil it or place it in a copper bottle so it can become alkalized and decontaminated.
Insects can be a potential health hazard as well, so make sure you take insect repellent, and proper clothes and shoes.
The Bottom Line
Traveling is a fabulous thing! It is an experience which is worth every penny. However, be careful not to ruin that experience by being negligent and unprepared. Your health can become more fragile, especially in a foreign place where there are many environmental factors to which your body is unaccustomed and which can cause a shock to your body.
So, it is best to do your research, consult your doctor, and get ready as best as possible to minimize any health risks that may result from traveling. And finally, have a great time out there!
About the Authors: This article was collaboratively written by our team of researchers and writers with the benefit of all available scientific studies and other relevant literature. Our team of researchers and writers include experienced health researchers including a qualified medical professional. Please note that information in this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.