Traveling to distant lands offers so many opportunities, from exploring new cultures and environments to trying exotic foods. In 2018, more than 41 million Americans traveled abroad to Europe, Asia, Africa and other destinations.
In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Saima Lodhi, MD, an internal medicine specialist with Scripps Coastal Medical Center Hillcrest. Dr. Lodhi has a special interest in travel medicine and discusses what overseas travelers can do to have a safe, healthy and enjoyable trip.
Whether you’re taking a tour, a cruise or just going on your own, traveling abroad promises exciting experiences. However, foreign travel is not without risk. Depending on where in the world you’re going, health concerns may range from digestive issues and altitude sickness to serious infectious diseases and other illnesses.
Central America, Africa and Asia, for example, have a higher risk of illnesses, such as Zika, malaria and dengue fever, all of which are spread by infected mosquitoes. In some parts of Africa and South America, travelers must be immunized against yellow fever before they can enter. Traveler’s diarrhea is a major concern, especially in countries where the water is not safe to drink.
Injuries are another issue. Access to quality medical facilities is not readily available in many parts of the world, so if you have an accident or injury, help may be hours away.
“It’s important for anyone traveling to be aware of the risks and how to reduce them,” says Dr. Lodhi. “Researching where you want to visit and what concerns may be involved is the first step.”
Research your desired destination before you make any travel plans. Consider your individual health issues, fitness level, accommodation preferences and other factors. For example, hiking in the mountains may sound amazing, but your body should be up to the task.
“Certain places may seem alluring, but you have to feel physically confident about where you want to go,” says Dr. Lodhi. “Check in with your primary care doctor about what you want to do. They can advise you on what is appropriate and what you might want to reconsider.”
Also, check health information advisories for your destination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Travelers’ Health website has up-to-date travel information for countries all over the world, as well as health and safety advisories.
One last thing: Make sure your passport is up to date. Many countries will not allow you to travel with a passport that expires within six months of your trip.
Once you’ve settled on a destination, make an appointment with your primary care physician or visit a travel medicine clinic to find out if you need vaccinations or anything else before you go.
“It’s never too soon to plan, so I always tell my patients to let me know as soon as you know where you’re going,” says Dr. Lodhi. “Vaccines are key in preventing illness and you want to get them no later than a month before you travel.”
Also prepare for the environment where you’re going. High altitudes, for example, can quickly lead to altitude sickness.
“Giving yourself time to get used to the altitude and the climate at your destination is very important,” says Dr. Lodhi. “If you’re going to hike Machu Picchu, give yourself a few days first at altitude before you set off on the hike.” Medication also can reduce the risk of altitude sickness.
Prepare for extreme cold, extreme heat and rapidly changing temperatures. Even in the African desert, for example, the nights can be very cold. Bring layers that you can add or remove easily. Long sleeves and pants also help protect you from mosquitoes and other bugs.
Bring a first aid kit that includes basic over-the-counter pain medication, bandages, a topical antibiotic and cortisol cream. Keep prescription medications with you in your carry-on bag, since these can be difficult to replace away from home.
It’s a good idea to make sure you’re covered for non-emergency care as well as emergencies. Most health insurance plans provide limited emergency coverage overseas, but it is usually quite limited. Many major credit cards include medical insurance benefits if you use the card to pay for your trip. Check with your credit card provider to find out if you’re covered and what the coverage includes.
If you don’t have adequate coverage, invest in a travel medical insurance policy. Many are less than $100 per person depending on the traveler, destination, length of trip and amount of coverage. Ask about evacuation coverage, which isn’t always included but may save your life in case of emergency.
“Access to medical facilities varies widely, so know what your options are for care, especially if you have a chronic condition,” says Dr. Lodhi.
Sitting for hours on an airplane can raise the risk of dehydration and blood clots in the legs. Dr. Lodhi offers suggestions to reduce your risk.
“Stay well-hydrated, wear loose comfortable clothing and get up and walk up and down the aisle every couple of hours to get your blood circulating,” she says. “Alcohol is dehydrating, so drink water instead, which can also help keep your legs from swelling.”
Eat and drink wisely
When you’ve arrived, continue to stay hydrated. In many developing countries, the tap water is not drinkable. If you’re not sure, stick with bottled water and avoid ice cubes, which are likely made with tap water. Explore the local cuisine but use caution about “street food” or anything that might not be safe to eat. When in doubt, pass.
“The better prepared you are, the more you will enjoy the experience,” says. Dr. Lodhi.
If you’re planning a trip out of the country, make an appointment at a Scripps Travel Clinic in San Diego at least three months before you depart.