Setting out on a dream vacation doesn’t protect you from illness. In fact, travel may stir up stress and anxiety and expose you to countless germs en route to your destination. Airplanes, trains and even cruise ships are a hotbed for infections thanks to recirculated air, grimy tray tables and cramped onboard lavatories. Any surface that is touched by a lot of people could pose a threat.
But according to Mark Selitsky, M.D., who leads the Travel Health Clinic at Henry Ford Health, only a small percentage of people get ill from infections such as Zika or malaria while traveling. The bigger threats are accidents, injuries and issues related to chronic illnesses. To stay safe, follow these guidelines – both before your trip and while you’re away.
Before You Go:
- Plan in advance. Don’t wait until the week before your trip to see your physician. “We recommend people see their primary care physician or a specialist even before they plan a trip in order to make sure they’re clear for travel,” says Selitsky. “Depending on where you’re traveling, you may need specific vaccinations or medications (some vaccination series begin up to six months before travel).” If you have heart disease, diabetes or some other chronic condition, your doctor can not only make sure you can weather the trip, he or she can also ensure you have sufficient meds while you’re away.
- Purchase insurance. Travel insurance is an added cost (typically between four and 10 percent of the trip’s cost), but it can offer much-needed peace of mind. The right policy not only covers cancellations and loss of baggage, but also health concerns and evacuations (to transport you back to the United States in the event of an emergency or illness while out of the country).
- Watch your meds. Stow medications in your carry-on bag – not in checked luggage. That way, if you’re delayed or your bags don’t reach your destination, you still have your medications. Equally important, pack drugs in the bottles they’re dispensed in and carry a letter from your doctor with the names of the medications you’re taking and why you’re taking them. Otherwise, they could be mistaken for illegal contraband.
While You’re There:
- Wash your hands. The single best way to protect against illness is to wash your hands frequently. Good hand hygiene can dramatically reduce your chances of developing diarrhea, vomiting, food poisoning and cold and flu, among other ailments. While many travelers carry hand sanitizers – they’re great in a pinch – they’re not a replacement for standard soap and water.
- Watch what you eat. Food contamination is one of the biggest culprits for causing tummy trouble. To the best of your ability, steer clear of street vendors, raw foods, long buffet tables and unsealed beverages. Drinks should be bottled and sealed and travelers should avoid beverages with ice cubes. The safest bet: Eat foods that are fresh, cooked thoroughly and served piping hot.
- Wear protection. Wear sun protection with an SPF of at least 50 and reapply frequently. Experts typically recommend using a shot glass equivalent of sunscreen every few hours to cover exposed areas including ears, toes, the part lines in your hair and your scalp. Wear a broad-brimmed hat for extra protection. Just as important: Use DEET-based insect repellent. Bites from mosquitoes, ticks and other critters are not only irritating, they may expose you to a host of diseases including West Nile virus, Lyme disease and Zika.
- Make wise choices. Safety issues are a big concern, particularly since research suggests people tend to be more adventurous when they’re vacationing. Driving can be risky since many overseas rental cars aren’t always equipped with seatbelts. Pay attention to posted signs and don’t swim or hike in unprotected areas. Be careful, too, about sexual encounters. It’s not uncommon for people to pick up HIV and other sexually transmitted infections overseas or on vacation, Selitsky says.
If you’re planning a trip overseas, don’t wait until the last minute to check in with a health professional. Most experts suggest making your appointment eight weeks (or more) before your departure. With just a few simple precautions, you can dramatically reduce your chances of getting ill.
To find a doctor or travel specialist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Mark Selitsky is an internal medicine physician and is the director of Henry Ford’s Travel Health Clinic. Travel clinic consults are available at Henry Ford Medical Center – Columbus in Novi and at Henry Ford’s Quick Care Clinic in downtown Detroit. For an appointment, call (248) 344-0723.