One of the most important areas of travel preparation is health, yet it is often one of the most neglected. In the busy lead-up to a trip, it can be easy to put doctor's visits on hold or balk at the added cost with the surmise “It won't happen to me.” I'm not going to tell you getting every vaccination available is necessarily advisable, or that you should keep half your backpack free for travel medicines. We don't travel to worry about every potential problem that may come our way. But what every traveler can and should do is to be informed about the environment they are entering, what steps they can take to prevent illness and what they can do should their health become an issue.
Here are 12 health-related points you should consider before your next trip.
1. Give yourself enough time
Some vaccinations require several shots over a period of time, some require a blood test to check anti-body levels and some should be given a certain amount of time before entering an area where the disease is prevalent. Many people skip out on part of the process or don't get them done at all, simply because they didn't give themselves enough time to prepare health-wise. If you are a frequent traveler, keeping up-to-date with all the standard travel vaccinations will allow you to rest easier when you decide to go on a last-minute trip.
2. Get advice from a trained medical professional
So many people just take hearsay from their friends about what vaccinations or medications they need. I shouldn't really need to go into why this is a bad idea. Visit a doctor and get proper medical advice. I recommend you visit a doctor specializing in travel if at all possible. Being their area of expertise, they can give you up-to-date medical advice based on the current situation in a country or specific area, inform you about changing opinions of the medical industry about the longevity of certain vaccinations and recommended treatments, and usually have even the most exotic vaccinations on hand or quickly accessible to them.
For those in Australia, I highly recommend The Travel Doctor (Traveller's Medical and Vaccination Centre). Their staff are knowledgeable, professional, have traveled extensively themselves in developing countries, are very up-to-date on current outbreaks, and they have always had all the travel vaccinations I have ever needed on hand to give me right away. They also don't try to “sell” any vaccinations or medications that they don't think are necessary. For those low on time, this can be a huge time saver rather than waiting for vaccinations to be ordered in. They also have an excellent health guide with steps on how to recognize the symptoms of common travel-related illnesses and how to self-medicate if necessary (I have had to in the past and this advice was invaluable). You can even email them with issues on the road and they get back to you promptly with their advice. Their website is an excellent resource for any traveler around the world, even if you aren't a patient. Find destination fact sheets, travel health fact sheets and information on the latest health alerts.
3. Address current medical conditions and bring appropriate medications
If you have any current medical conditions or physical concerns, you should address them when you visit your doctor. Sometimes the smallest of preventative measures can make the world of difference. For example, I have an issue with my right knee from an old sports injury that in my experience starts causing problems after about eight hours of walking. You may think this is an excessive amount of walking, but as backpackers, we can easily walk this much in a day – for days, weeks, months on end. Wearing a simple knee brace when we hike, climb or just have long days on foot can be the difference between an enjoyable day out or one where I am limping home.
Are you on medication for your current medical condition? Do you have enough of it for your trip and a little more in case you are delayed? Will you need to get more where you are going? Can you? And if so, how? Do you need any documentation from your doctor to get more elsewhere? Make sure you speak to your doctor about this before departure.
4. Get your vaccinations
While you may think of them as an annoyance in both time and cost pre-travel, getting the appropriate vaccinations can save you time, hassle and money in the long-run, not to mention your long-term health and ultimately your life. Not all vaccinations give you life-time coverage – make sure you get boosters as required.
5. Carry your vaccination record
There are two things that always travel with us, our passports and our vaccination records. In fact, they live together in the same sleeve. Say you do get sick and need medical assistance. Based on your symptoms, they are likely to ask you whether you have had certain vaccinations. Can you remember all the vaccinations you have had and when? This is an important health record, and I always scan and email it to myself whenever it gets updated should anything ever happen to the original.
When I started traveling and got the “little yellow book,” I found my old medical book from when I was a child and got the doctor to add every vaccination I have ever had. While going so far back may not be necessary in a lot of cases, it certainly helped my doctor to ascertain which vaccinations they recommended the first time I started to travel internationally. If you have the information available to you, the more complete, the better.
6. Know what vaccinations are REQUIRED to travel
Did you know that some vaccinations may actually be required for entry into certain countries? There is a reason why there is a certificate of yellow fever section in your travel vaccination booklet, that is because you may need to show it to be allowed entry into certain destinations. Your travel doctor or embassy should be able to tell you if this is a requirement of the destination(s) you are visiting. Hence, with our passports seems like a logical place to keep it!
7. Bring some medications/first aid
I'm not suggesting going overboard here. What you bring will certainly depend on your destination, duration of stay and the type of travel you are embarking on, and there are many things that are accessible abroad should you need them. But every traveler should at least have some basics with them like band aids and something to disinfect a cut. I also recommend oral rehydration tablets, something for a headache and one course of your favorite cold/flu medication (again depending on destination and time away). This should tide you over and at least address the symptoms until you can get medical assistance should you need it. Having a few of the basics can save you a lot of hassle if you are not close to a pharmacy/medical facility, are traveling solo or don't speak the local language. If you are traveling to certain destinations or to very isolated places, your doctor may recommend bringing along other medications. Also, don't forget your sun cream and insect repellant.
8. Carry documentation of prescribed medications
Do you need any documentation from your doctor to carry the medications you have with you? Did you know that some airlines require you to present documentation to be able to fly with certain medications, whether they be for ongoing health problems or those you may be carrying just for the trip? I always get my doctor to give me documentation confirming what has been prescribed to me and for what purpose just in case.
9. Know how to administer your medications
This may sound obvious, but do you know how to take the particular anti-malarial drug prescribed to you? How long you should take them for, how often, when and the side effects can all be different. Did you know that they may affect your dreams or make you more sensitive to sunlight? Do you know that they don't prevent malaria, but elongate the symptoms should you get infected so that you can get medical help in time? In what cases should you use any of the medications a doctor may have prescribed to you? What are the symptoms of illnesses you may contract in the area? And how can you make a more informed decision about what to take and when? Discuss these things with your doctor before departure and carry information with you. The Health Guide we received from The Travel Doctor was an invaluable resource when I battled a mystery illness courtesy of an Indian lassi (well, at least that's how I think I got it) which even hospital visits couldn't resolve.
10. Prevent it if at all possible
Not all illnesses are preventable and I'm the last person to tell you not to try anything because there is a chance you might get sick. Putting ourselves in certain environments, especially in less developed areas and/or for prolonged periods, brings with it certain risks. But there are some basic measures we can all take to limit our exposure. If you are going to a place where mosquito-borne diseases are prevalent, the best thing you can do for yourself is to not get bitten in the first place. Cover up with long pants and long sleeved tops, use tropical strength insect repellant, use a permethrin-impregnated mosquito net when sleeping. If water-borne diseases are an issue, use bottled water from a credible source (at least to the best of your knowledge) for drinking and brushing teeth, avoid drinks mixed with water or with ice. Your doctor will be able to give you advice about the area you are visiting and steps you can take to prevent illness.
11. Know what to do if it does happen to you
Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to avoid it, we are going to get sick, and accidents happen. The important thing is to have an understanding of the health risks in the place you are visiting and what you should do if it happens to you.
Let me share a little travel health story of my own. Before traveling to Bali for work about a year and a half ago, I visited my doctor here in Tokyo. We discussed the prevalence of rabid dogs in Bali and he said that there had been an outbreak of rabies on the island in recent years. He suggested I think about rabies vaccinations. After considering the pros and cons, I decided against it.
Now, you're probably thinking I'm just going back on my earlier advice about getting your vaccinations. I'm not suggesting skipping core vaccinations or not following your doctor's advice, but what I am suggesting is making an informed decision about your health. I don't consider rabies a core vaccination, it's a destination specific consideration. If I were to get vaccinated, I would need two shots before departure, and then if I did get bitten, I would need three more after. If I wasn't, I would need to get boosters later on to keep it valid when I may not even be in an area where it was necessary. Or let it lapse, and start the process all over again when I was once again visiting a place where rabies was a risk. Or I could not get pre-vaccinated at all and just get five post-exposure shots in the event that the worst happened. Basically, the doctor couldn't tell me of any real advantage of getting two vaccinations beforehand just in case, other than it would be more convenient to only need three post-exposure shots rather than five and that he wasn't sure of the availability of post-exposure rabies vaccinations in the area I was visiting, but the number of vaccinations would total five in any case should I need to call upon them.
It turns out I was bitten by a dog. But I knew the moment it happened what a dog bite in Bali means and the measures I needed to take to protect my health. Knowing all of this, I was able to get to a clinic and have that first post-exposure rabies vaccination jabbed in to me about 20 minutes after the incident. If you are interested in reading about my dog bite story and viewing the pictures of my progression from day 1-10, click here.
If you do get sick on the road, I highly recommended keeping a health diary. Just jotting down a few notes each day of the symptoms and how long you have had them, at what times or in what situations you feel better or worse and so on, can make sure important details are not lost and can help your doctor diagnose you more quickly. Keeping notes may reveal parallels between certain events that may not have been obvious otherwise.
12. Take out travel insurance
Make sure you are covered for health issues on the road. If you purchase your travel with your credit card, you may be eligible for travel insurance coverage. Contact your credit card company to see if this applies to you. If not, take out a separate policy (we recommend World Nomads) and know what to do if you need to claim. This applies to any claims not just health ones. In the event that something does happen which you may want to claim later, do you need to contact the insurance company right away or within a certain period? Often if the claim could exceed a certain amount, you need to contact the insurance company or you may not be able to claim the expenses later. What documentation do you need to get in order to claim – hospital records, receipts, a police report? Make sure you get these things when you can. It will save you a lot of hassle trying to get them later or perhaps not being able to claim at all. Always carry a copy of your insurance info and the number of your insurance company should you need to contact them in an emergency.
How do you prepare for a trip health-wise? Do you have a travel health story to share or another point to add to the list? Let us know in the comments section below.