If you're planning your summer vacation--and, if history repeats, 41 percent of us are doing just that--you may be consumed with details like getting a dog sitter, tinkering with the light timer, and having your newspapers held. But as you rush from the cleaners to the bank to the passport office, don't overlook the task of staying healthy while you're away from home.
Even veterans fall short: They'll forget to get needed shots, have their favorite boots resoled, check out an area's water supply, or pack needed medical supplies. So for travelers of all experience levels and all destinations, here's a quick guide to keep you well here, there, and back again.
Before you go
Review your health insurance. Look at your policy or contact your insurance company or HMO to verify your coverage. Ask about any specific travel-related policies, such as a requirement to call your member-service office before or soon after obtaining medical care.
If you do need to purchase health coverage during the trip, a variety of insurance companies, cruise lines, and travel agents offer it, usually bundled with insurance for trip cancellation and emergency evacuation. While costs vary, a couple going on a $4,000 cruise might pay about $200 for a policy with these and additional benefits, says Claudia Fullerton, a spokewoman for CSA Travel Protection.
Get immunizations early. Traveling to exotic locales brings the risk of yellow fever, typhoid fever, hepatitis, and other dangers. Vaccines can protect you against many of these illnesses--if you plan ahead.
Immunizations often take several weeks to reach maximum effectiveness. "It would be ideal to come to us at least a month in advance," says Joseph Cervia, M.D., an infectious-disease specialist at the Travel and International Health Service of Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York. To find out what immunizations you need for your trip, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posts a regional guide at cdc.gov/travel/vaccinat.htm.
And if you do need last-minute immunizations, take heart: In healthy patients, multiple vaccines can be given without boosting adverse side effects, according to a report in the Journal of Travel Medicine.
Stock up on medications. Bring a supply of your prescriptions that exceeds the amount of days you plan to be gone. While pill totes are popular, "it's wise to keep the medicine in its original container, which has the original labeling," says Cervia. "That shows the [security] screeners who may find it that it's a legitimate prescription." Keep your physician's contact information on hand; if you run out of your medications, he or she may be able to fax or phone in a prescription.
Prepare for the flight. Try to minimize nasal dryness since breaks in the mucous membranes can facilitate infections. Take along an over-the-counter zinc-based nasal gel like Zicam or saline gel such as Ayr, says Terri Rock, M.D., a family physician and travel-medicine specialist in Santa Monica, Calif. For natural prevention of motion sickness, take ginger supplements, says Rock; about 250 milligrams three times a day is a commonly recommended dose. Ginger tea can work, too, adds Christian Dodge, N.D., a naturopathic physician at Bastyr University's Center for Natural Health in Seattle. "Have as much tea as you want," he says.
During the trip
Wash your hands often. On land or in the air, frequent hand-washing prevents the transmission of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases. Take along alcohol-based hand sanitizers, says Phyllis Kozarsky, M.D., chief of travelers' health for the CDC.
Keep moving. The American Council on Exercise suggests that passengers should move around an airplane cabin every 15 to 30 minutes. Women on oral contraceptives are at higher risk for blood clots when airborne, according to the Archives of Internal Medicine, so they should stay hydrated and walk whenever possible. If you can't get up, do a series of in-seat exercises like toe wiggles, ankle rotations, knee lifts, and shoulder shrugs.
Compression stockings, available at drugstores and medical supply stores, have been shown in studies to reduce clot risk; wearing them during and a day after the flight is recommended.
Avoid questionable food or water. Ingesting contaminated food and drink can cause a variety of infections, from E. coli to giardiasis and hepatitis A, according to the CDC. This is a particular problem for travelers in developing countries. Boil water vigorously or disinfect it with iodine; portable filters impregnated with resins, sold at camping stores, are another option. Consider all your water sources; even ice cubes in a soda or brushing your teeth with tap water can make you sick. If you don't know the safety of the local fare, choose cooked or steamed food over raw. Peel fruit before eating it, and avoid salads and unpasteurized milk products.
After the trip
Stay alert. Problems can surface after your safe return. "It can be weeks before parasitic infections show up, and some malaria can hide for up to a year," says Cervia. "The most important symptom to be aware of is fever, particularly fever with chills." Depending on your itinerary, your doctor may need to rule out malaria, typhoid fever or other problematic "souvenirs."