It’s always important to take care of your health, but there are additional concerns to keep in mind when you’re traveling.
Whether you’re taking a quick trip with your family or studying abroad for several months, it’s easier to get sick when you’re in a new place because your body hasn’t had a chance to adjust to the food, water, and air in a new environment. Traveling can bring you in contact with things that your body isn’t used to.
Here are some tips on keeping your travel experience as healthy as possible.
Don’t Take a Vacation From Health
The stress and excitement of travel can make you more likely to get sick, but if you follow a few simple tips, you’re more likely to stay healthy throughout your trip — and your trip will definitely be more enjoyable. The good news is that as a teen, your immune system is as strong as an adult’s, but lack of sleep and a poor diet can make it easier for you to become sick.
The first thing you should do if you’re heading overseas is to find out what kinds of vaccinations you’ll need in advance because different countries have different requirements. In the United States, contact your doctor or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for a list of necessary vaccinations. You’ll want to allow plenty of time for this step in case you need to get vaccines that require more than one dose.
Common Travel Troubles
Three of the most common health problems that you may experience when traveling are jet lag, altitude sickness, and diarrhea. When you fly across time zones, the differing amounts of light can change your internal body clock, resulting in a condition known as jet lag. Jet lag may cause some symptoms that are bummers on a fun trip, including upset stomach, insomnia, and tiredness.
There are some things you can do to combat jet lag; for example, if you’re traveling from west to east, you should stay out of the sun until the day after your arrival. If you’re flying from east to west, go for a brisk walk as soon as possible after you arrive.
Altitude sickness is caused by dry air, a decrease in oxygen, and low barometric pressure when you travel to a higher altitude than you’re used to. As a result, you may have problems, such as headaches, dehydration, and shortness of breath. Some people are affected at 5,000 feet (1,524 meters), but others aren’t affected until they reach altitudes of 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) or more. Find out what altitude you’re traveling to before you go to see if altitude sickness could be a problem.
The best prevention for altitude sickness is to gradually increase your altitude every day to get used to it. If that isn’t possible, a drug known as acetazolamide can help relieve and even prevent symptoms of altitude sickness. If you think that you might get altitude sickness, talk with your doctor before you leave home.
The topic of diarrhea may seem gross, but it can be a serious problem. Traveler’s diarrhea, known as turista, often occurs when a foreign type of bacteria enters your digestive tract, usually when you eat contaminated food or water. The best way to prevent turista is to be very careful of the food you eat and the water you drink on the road.
Safe Eats and Drinks
So what foods are safe to eat? Any foods that have been boiled are generally safe, as well as fruits and vegetables that have to be peeled before eating. Avoid eating uncooked or undercooked meat or meat that is not cooked just prior to serving.
Stay away from foods that require a lot of handling before serving. Here’s an example: Nine friends ate at a restaurant when on a school trip overseas; eight had diarrhea the next day. The one who didn’t get sick was the only one who had ordered a dish that didn’t need to be touched by human hands right before serving.
One of your favorite foods at home is on the safe list on the road — pizza! Pizza dough, sauce, and cheese are foods that are less likely to spoil than others, and the high heat of a pizza oven tends to kill any harmful bacteria in the food.
You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t drink the water in some countries overseas, but did you know why? Water supplies in many developing countries are not treated in the same way as water supplies in developed countries; various bacteria, viruses, and parasites are commonly found in the water. Many experts suggest you drink only bottled water when traveling. If you need to use tap water, you should boil it first or purify it with an iodine tablet. Even if you’re brushing your teeth, rinsing contact lenses, drinking a small glass of water to wash down pills, or adding ice to your drink, first take precautions to ensure the water is safe.
You Can Take It With You
When you’re packing, you’ll want to include any medications and other medical supplies you use on a daily basis because they may be hard to find in another country if you run out. Even if you can find them, there’s a good chance the formulations will be stronger or weaker than the ones you’re used to. These may include any prescriptions you already take, such as inhalers, allergy medication, and insulin, as well as contact lens cleaners and vitamins.
Packing an over-the-counter pain medication like acetaminophen and diarrhea medication is also a good idea. And pack some OTC allergy medication even if you don’t take it at home. People sometimes unexpectedly develop allergic reactions to the pollens and other allergens found in a new environment. Those with asthma or other allergies can unexpectedly react to these new substances.
Write It All Down
Even if you watch what you eat and drink and get enough rest while you’re traveling, you might still get sick. The good news is that you’ll probably be able to find competent medical care. The key is knowing where to go. Most travel guides suggest you go to a hospital where English is spoken or U.S.-trained doctors can be found. For this reason, it’s wise to always carry a written copy of your medical history with you.
Having such important information available in one place can help health care workers make appropriate decisions, and you won’t have to worry about forgetting important information at a time when you’re likely to be upset and not thinking clearly.
Before you leave your home sweet home, create a medical history form that includes the following information:
- your name, address, and home phone number as well as a parent’s daytime phone number
- your blood type
- your doctor’s name, address, and office and emergency phone numbers
- the name, address, and phone number of your health insurance carrier, including your policy number
- a list of any ongoing health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, or AIDS
- a list of current medications you are taking and pharmacy name and phone number
- a list of allergies to medications, food, insects, and animals
- a prescription for glasses or contact lenses
- the name, address, and phone number of a relative other than your parent
It also helps if you have some basic emergency medical knowledge, not only for yourself but for helping others you may be traveling with. A great way to prepare for your trip is to take a first aid or basic life support course before you go; if you’re traveling with a group, you should know where the first aid kit is and what’s in it.
It’s easy to let your guard down when you travel. After all, you’re more relaxed and there are so many new sights to focus on. In addition to paying attention to your personal safety (avoiding secluded places and not walking alone after dark), you’ll need to reset your thinking when it comes to traffic safety, too. The rules of the road aren’t the same overseas as they are at home. In some countries, people drive on the opposite side of the road and you’ll need to be aware of this before you cross the street — look in the opposite direction from the one you’re used to. Pedestrians don’t always have the right of way overseas, either. Be sure there are no cars coming when you step into the street: If there are, they may not stop for you!
Practice these healthy hints and you can focus on the scenery — not medical emergencies — and return home with nothing more troubling than some tacky souvenirs!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2013