When travelling on anything from a weekend away to a two week summer break or on longer trips, the one thing you must plan for is your health. It is probably the most important thing in determining if you’ll enjoy your holiday. If something happens to you healthwise when you are away from home your trip can soon deteriorate into you wishing you were somewhere else. Not a great feeling when you’ve spent your hard earned money on that dream holiday that is turning out to be a nightmare. Follow the travel health and advice tips below and it should help to keep you healthy on your travels.
Please feel free to add your own travel health tips.
Before you travel make sure you are up to date with any vaccinations you need for the country you are going to. Check the National Travel Health Network and Centre website for information on current health risks and vaccine preventable risks per country. The website has information on each country on all continents. Some countries require you to have vaccination certificates, such as yellow fever, if you have recently travelled to a country with yellow fever risk or similar. Depending on your home country, you may be able to get some vaccinations free of charge while others you will need to pay for. Check with your doctor or travel health advisor.
Get a pre-travel checkup
If you have any underlying medical conditions talk to your doctor for advice before you travel. Tell the doctor where you are going and for how long. If you are taking any medications get more than enough to cover the length of your trip and always carry these in your hand luggage. If the airline loses your luggage you don’t want to be left without your medication. Carry a copy of your official prescription with you in case you get stopped by customs officials enquiring what those strange tablets are you’re carrying.
Being covered by adequate travel insurance is a really important part of booking your holiday. These days it is not that expensive to buy and some bank accounts now get free travel insurance thrown in as part of the costs of running the account. The main part of the insurance is to cover you for health costs if you fall ill or are injured while you are away. These costs can soon rocket into eye watering amounts of money if you are hospitalised or need to be flown home via air ambulance. It is just not worth it to not have travel insurance cover while travelling regardless of how long your trip is going to be. Ensure you have adequate cover, include any pre-existing conditions for you and all family members travelling with you, including children. For more information on travel insurance see these pages How to buy travel insurance online and Where do you buy travel insurance.
For those travelling within the European Union be sure to carry a European Health Insurance Card. The card is free and for UK residents you can apply for one here. It enables you to access free or reduced-cost state-provided healthcare if necessary during your trip, due to either illness or an accident in the European Economic Area countries and Switzerland. It also covers you for pre-existing conditions.
Wherever you are travelling to on holiday you will need to take some kind of emergency medical supplies and first aid kit with you for emergencies. In some countries you might not be able to find an open pharmacy 24/7 so it’s best to carry the basic supplies with you.
- Basic painkillers such as paracetamol
- Diarrhoea tablets
- Rehydration salts: fluid loss replacement due to diarrhoea
- Travel sickness tablets
- Plasters: waterproof and fabric in various sizes
- A bandage for sprains
- Antiseptic ointment or spray
- Insect repellent
- Insect bite and sting treatment
- Antihistamine for basic allergy treatment
- Scissors and tweezers (you can’t carry these in your hand luggage on flights)
TIP: Both my wife and I use Avon Skin so Soft dry oil spray as an insect repellent and find that it works really well. Although the true purpose of Avon Skin so Soft is a skin dry moisturising spray, mosquitoes and other biting insects just don’t seem to like it. Rumour has it that it is used by British army soldiers when they venture into areas with mosquito infestations. It smells much better and feels better on your skin than other insect repellents and I can’t remember getting a single bite when I’ve used it. Avon Skin so Soft can be used as an alternative insect repellent but is not meant as a replacement for good quality insect repellents containing DEET.
The local pharmacist in the location you are staying can be a great free source of medical information. For minor ailments and general medical advice it is quicker and free to talk to the local pharmacist, who can often sort out just what you need, when compared to seeing a doctor where an appointment is required and may not be free.
Malaria and other mosquito borne diseases
The old saying “prevention is better than the cure” really does apply when it comes to mosquito bites. Not getting bitten in the first place is always going to be the best course of action as some mosquito borne diseases have no cure other than patient care.
If you are going to a country where there is a risk of getting malaria make sure you take anti-malaria medication as this will help to prevent you getting malaria. The best anti-malaria medication to take varies depending on the country you are visiting as the parasites vary worldwide. Some parasites are resistant to antimalarial drugs these days, so check with your doctor and take the medication exactly as prescribed. The most common reason for people developing malaria after returning home is that they didn’t take the medication properly. Malaria symptoms are flu like, high temperature, shivers, ache, pains or nausea to name a few, but remember it can kill you if left undiagnosed. So seek medical attention immediately if you have been to an area with a malaria risk, especially in the first 3 months after returning.
TIP: It is advisable not to buy anti malarial drugs in some countries or on-line as they could be fake. Get enough from your doctor to last the duration of however long you need to take the medication.
Some countries have Dengue fever and Chikungunya fever risks. Both are nasty and it’s likely you’ll need medical care if you contract either one. These are mosquito borne diseases which have no treatment as such, but medical teams with experience of treating these diseases will help with patient care.
The best prevention is you need to take steps to prevent getting bitten;
- Use a good insect repellent containing DEET (see the Medical Kit section above for an alternative way to prevent bites).
- After dark wear loose fitting clothes to cover up bear skin, long trousers and long sleeves.
- Sleep under mosquito nets, tuck the net under bedding or mattress around the edges and make sure there are no mosquitoes inside the net before turning out the light.
- Air conditioning in your room helps as all doors and windows can be shut helping to keep mosquitoes out and they are not keen on the lower temperature.
Coping with jet lag
Jet lag makes you feel tired, with a lack of energy, fatigue during the day, disturbed sleep and can feel like a hangover without having consumed any alcohol. Scientists created the world’s time zones back in 1884 by dividing the world into 24 vertical slices, each representing one hour of time. Greenwich in London was used as the starting point as zero degrees longitude and each time zone represents 15 degrees of longitude in width (360 / 24 = 15). This means that if you travel from London (0 degrees longitude) to New York (74 degrees west longitude), your destination will be 5 hours behind where you set off from. If you left London at say 12 noon and it took approx 7 hours flying time, your body would be thinking it was 7.00pm when the local time is in fact 2.00pm. A few hours later and your body would be telling you it’s time for bed when in fact it’s only late afternoon. The converse applies when flying to destinations east of your starting point. If we use the same 7 flying hours and the local time is 5 hours ahead you would arrive at 12 midnight. Your body would think it’s 7.00pm and too early for bed when the local time is 12 midnight.
The best way to cope with this and adjust your body’s routine to the local time as quickly as possible is to use the local daylight hours and go to bed at the time you normally would back home. This will mean if you’ve flown west staying up late and if you’ve flown east going to bed early. Get up at the time you normally would back home and if this means you’re tired during the day, have a short nap for an hour and wake with an alarm clock.
Other points to consider:
- Get as much sleep as possible before you leave home so you are well rested.
- Drink lots of water on the flight and eat light meals.
- Adjust your watch to the time of your destination when you board the flight.
- As a general rule, for every hour time difference it takes a day for your body to adjust, so 5 hours of time difference would take 5 days to fully adjust to local time.
Travel while pregnant
For pregnant women it is important you plan your trip. However, there should be no reason why you can’t travel safely if you take the proper precautions before travelling. Some women find it best not to travel in the first 3 months of pregnancy due to tiredness, nausea and the greater risk of miscarriage during this time, that’s not to say that you can’t if you feel OK. Most airlines won’t allow you to travel if you are more than 36 weeks (32 weeks for twins) pregnant. After week 28 most airlines require a letter from you doctor stating that you are in good health, your pregnancy is normal and the date of your expected delivery. Some ferry companies won’t let you travel after 32 weeks. Check with the airline or ferry company for their policy.
Talk to your doctor before you go to let them know where you are going and for how long. As having vaccines during pregnancy is not recommended, it is best to avoid travelling to countries where vaccinations are required. If you have to go to countries requiring vaccinations, it’s probably best to get them as the risk from getting a dangerous disease is far greater than having the vaccine. You also need to consult your doctor if you are considering going to a country with risk of malaria as some anti-malarial medication is not safe to take during pregnancy. Make sure the medical facilities at your destination are good enough to care for you if you require emergency medical assistance. Check your travel health insurance covers you for travel while pregnant.
During travel on flights, ferries or long car journeys wear loose comfortable clothing, drink plenty of water and eat light meals, don’t sit still for too long, get up and walk around (frequent stops in a car), do the exercises to help prevent DVT and wear anti-embolism stockings. Take care with local food and drink. If you get a stomach upset or diarrhoea some medications to combat these can’t be taken during pregnancy.
Travel health for children
In general children face the same health risk issues while travelling that adults do, but the consequences can be greater and children are more likely to become ill or get injured while travelling than adults. Explain the dangers to your kids such as drinking water safely, stear clear of strange animals, insect bites, sunburn, the sea and swimming pools to name a few.
If you are travelling with children it’s important you know the risks associated with where you are going beforehand and be prepared for any eventuality. Having a basic first aid knowledge and knowing how to treat minor ailments will be a big help, but also knowing when you need to seek medical help. In addition to the basic medical kit mentioned above you should also carry a good supply of the child medications you would use at home, these may not be easily available in another country. If your child is taking any prescribed medication ensure you take more than enough with you for the duration of your trip and take a copy of the prescription just in case of emergencies. Children of all ages should take anti-malaria medication if you are travelling to areas with risk of malaria. The dose is less than an adult so you need to check with your doctor.
Other ailments your child may suffer and you need to deal with:
- Prevention of sunburn is better than dealing with the after affects. Use high sun protection factor (SPF) sunscreen such as 50+ at all times on your child. Make them wear a sun hat and cover up wearing a T-shirt, even for swimming, if they are showing signs they have had too much sun.
- For heat rashes, bath your child in cool water and then apply calamine lotion. Keep them out of the sun until the rash dissipates.
- Any cuts or sores should be kept clean and dry. In hot tropical climates continual sweating can make it difficult to keep a cut clean and dry, which can then turn infectious.
- Insect bites or stings should be treated with bite or sting treatment until healed.
- For basic allergy treatment use antihistamine medication such as Piriton following the child size dose instructions.
- Children with vomiting or diarrhoea should have lost fluids replaced with re-hydrating fluids. Carry sachets of these with you as mentioned in the medical kit section above.
- For more tips see our post on Child travel health and safety or for general tips on travelling with children see the Kids travel how to guide.
TIP: If in any doubt about the condition your child is suffering seek medical assistance as early as possible. This advice also applies to adults, don’t wait, seek help!
Disabled travellers health
If travellers with disabilities plan ahead they should be able to enjoy a holiday in another country free of health issues. Here are a few points to consider when booking a holiday:
- Research the place you are planning to stay to ensure ease of access for the facilities they have.
- Search the internet or guide books to find recommendations from other disabled travellers or any problems encountered from places they have stayed and places to avoid. Use disability organisations and/or specialist travel companies who are well versed in helping people with special needs to plan their holiday.
- Ensure the hotel or travel organisation can provide adequate transport arrangements to suit your needs for the duration of your stay to get you to where you want to go.
- Talk to your doctor to get the vaccinations you need. Also your doctor will be able to provide you with a letter confirming you are fit to travel, medications you are taking and any special treatment you require in case of an emergency. This will also help get you through border controls if you need to take any special medical kit with you. Your doctor will be able to tell you if you condition makes you more susceptible to DVT when travelling.
- Tell the airline and hotel of any specific needs you have before you leave. Make sure they understand what those needs are and that they will be able to assist you. It is best if you can confirm these in writing via email so you can print this off and take it with you.
- Make sure you have travel health insurance that covers all your existing conditions and that the insurance company knows about them. If you are travelling in the European economic area ensure you carry a European Health Insurance Card with you.
If you found the above travel health and advice helpful, please share so others can benefit from the information as well or if you have any questions or tips of your own on travel health, leave a comment below.