Before you get on the plane for your dream safari to Africa or embark on a backpacking trip through remote Asia, find out if your health provider offers travel medicine services. Sometimes referred to as “travelers’ clinics,” these programs offer immunizations, counseling and medicines to help protect you and your family while you are overseas.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 million travelers visit developing countries, such as Northern Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, every year. Most travel-related health issues are relatively mild, such as diarrhea, skin disorders and respiratory infections, but about 8 percent, or 4 million individuals, suffer a more serious illness that requires medical care.
“We want to keep you well so you don’t get sick while you are traveling,” says Shantu Patel, MD, who provides travel medicine services at Scripps Coastal Medical Center in Vista. “You want to bring back pleasant memories, not memories of being sick and unable to enjoy your trip.”
Dr. Patel recommends that travelers make an appointment at the travel clinic about four to six weeks before a trip.
Bring your travel itinerary and your health history, including previous immunizations and any medications you currently take, to your consultation. A provider will make a personalized travel health plan to help protect you from common travelers’ maladies and more serious health risks.
Recommendations for vaccinations as well as prescription and over-the-counter medications depend on many factors that are specific to each traveler, including destination, activities, time of year and altitude.
“A travel medicine provider understands that there is no cookie-cutter approach to staying well while journeying to exotic destinations,” says David Mathison, MD, who practices travel medicine at Scripps Clinic in Carmel Valley. “We sit down with you, go over your plans and provide the best information and recommendations based on your needs.”
Vaccinations are usually available on-site and most often can be prepared and administered immediately after the consultation is completed. They range from hepatitis A and yellow fever to rabies and Japanese encephalitis. Prescriptions can be provided for malaria prevention, Traveler’s diarrhea, altitude sickness and jet lag.
Some of the most common health issues that can derail the trip of a lifetime include:
“Avoiding jet leg completely is not feasible,” says Dr. Mathison. “However, you can relieve or minimize the symptoms of light-headedness and disorientation.”
Melatonin, an over-the-counter food supplement, may decrease jet lag for people who cross five or more time zones. An over-the-counter sedative containing diphenhydramine antihistamine (Benadryl or Tylenol PM), may help you get some shut-eye if taken at the desired time. Prescription benzodiazepams, such as Valium, Ambien or Lunesta, are stronger than diphenhydramine, but have side effects. Ramelton is a prescription melatonin receptor that mimics melatonin. Talk with your travel medicine provider for more information.
The bane of many a tourist, traveler’s diarrhea may be caused by a number of bacterial, viral or parasitic microorganisms. According to the CDC, an estimated 10 million people, or 20 to 50 percent of international travelers, experience traveler’s diarrhea. Travelers are susceptible because they have not built up immunity to many native organisms.
To avoid traveler’s diarrhea, be diligent about washing your hands with antibacterial soap and water before eating, avoid raw foods, drink carbonated beverages (the carbonation inhibits growth of microbes) and drink bottled or boiled water.
Bring Pepto-Bismol or Imodium A-D with you and take at the first sign of diarrhea. Or, ask your provider about back-up prescriptions and an antibiotic in the event you contract a severe case of traveler’s diarrhea that is complicated by fever and not responding to over-the-counter remedies.
Malaria is an acute, debilitating and occasionally fatal disease caused by a blood parasite transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito. About 1,500 cases of malaria are diagnosed in the U.S. annually, most of them in returning travelers from parts of the world where the disease is transmitted, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
There is no vaccine for malaria, but there are anti-malarial drugs available in the United States by prescription. Most are started one day to two weeks prior to travel, continued during travel and for up to four weeks after departure from a malaria region.
Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by a virus transmitted primarily through contaminated food and water sources. The best way to prevent Hepatitis A is through the vaccine, and protection begins within two to six weeks after the first injection. A second injection results in long-term protection.
Found in certain parts of Africa and South America, yellow fever is a serious disease caused by a virus and spread through the bite of an infected mosquito. A highly effective vaccine prevents the disease, with a single dose providing protection for up to 10 years.
“Plan early for your trip,” says Dr. Patel, who often provides travel care for schools traveling abroad for humanitarian reasons. “A visit to a travel clinic will help protect you during your travels, whether it is for a vacation, mission trip, study abroad or business.”
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