Illness & Conditions - Special Health Issues
How can you stay healthy on your trip?
The best way to stay healthy on your trip is to plan before you go. If you are planning to travel to another country, see a doctor at least 6 weeks before you leave so you will have time for vaccines (immunizations) that you may need to get ahead of time.
Also ask your doctor if there are medicines or extra safety steps that you should take. For example, if you have asthma, you may have to avoid stays in polluted cities. Or someone visiting Africa may need to take medicine to prevent malaria .
Where can you get the best information?
You can use the Internet to find general travel health information. Just make sure that the information is up-to-date and from a reliable source. See the following websites before you travel:
Which immunizations and medicines will you need?
Vaccines that may be recommended include those for:
If you plan to visit an area where malaria is common, start taking medicine ahead of time to prevent malaria infection.
What precautions should you take while you travel?
Before you go, learn about the places you plan to visit. For example, find out if the water is safe to drink or if you need to worry about malaria.
Basic safety can prevent some problems:
What if you get sick while you are traveling?
If you become seriously ill while traveling, your country's embassy or consulate can help you find medical care. If you become ill with a fever or flu-like illness while traveling in malaria-risk areas, get medical help right away.
Diarrhea is the most common illness to strike travelers. Most cases of travelers' diarrhea get better in 1 to 3 days without treatment. But see a doctor if diarrhea lasts longer than 7 days, or if you have a high fever, blood or mucus in your diarrhea, or signs of dehydration.
Should you see a doctor when you return?
If you were healthy during your trip and you feel well when you return home, you probably don't need to see a doctor.
See your doctor when you get home if either of the following occurs:
Tell your doctor the places you visited and whether you think you may have gotten a disease. Many diseases don't show up right away. And some can take weeks or months to develop.
Frequently Asked Questions
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Before You Go
Proper planning is the best way to stay healthy during your trip. This takes time. You'll want to gather both travel and health information, and think about your special needs.
See a doctor at least 6 weeks before you go so you'll have time to get vaccines or make other health preparations.
To get started
Get the information you need
You can use the Internet to find general travel health information. Just make sure the information is up-to-date and from a reliable source. See the following websites before you travel:
Get needed vaccines and medicines
Check with the nearest travel health clinic, your regional health department, your doctor, or one of the websites listed above to see what kind of vaccines you should get. In the United States, most state health clinics can give you travel vaccines, some medicines, and healthy travel tips.
See your doctor or go to a clinic as soon as you can, or at least 6 weeks before traveling. Some vaccines need to be given in more than one dose, and you may need more than 6 weeks to get protection. You may need vaccines to protect against:
More immunizations may be needed depending on the area you are visiting, how long you will be there, and the purpose of your journey. For example, if you will be trekking in rural Asia for a month or longer, you may need a vaccine for Japanese encephalitis (What is a PDF document?) . 1
A vaccine for traveler's diarrhea and cholera , called Dukoral, has been approved in Canada and Europe. But it is not available in the United States.
To learn more, see the topic Immunizations.
Ask about a prescription for antimalarial drugs if you will be visiting an area that has malaria . This includes large areas of Central and South America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and many South Pacific islands.
You may need to take one of several different preventive medicines, depending on the type of malaria parasite in that part of the world. These medicines need to be taken daily during your travels and for a specified time after you return. It is important to take all the tablets you were given. This may mean taking antimalarial tablets for several weeks after you get home.
Personal health needs
If you have any chronic diseases or other health concerns, such as birth control or allergies, see your doctor. You may need to take other steps or make adjustments in your travel plans.
Precautions Along the Way
Traveling comes with a whole new set of things to think about. The following can help you stay healthy and enjoy your trip as much as possible.
Tips for flying
Flying isn't always fun. But you can take steps to make it easier and to feel better during and after your flight.
Water and food safety
Contaminated water and food are the most common cause of illness in travelers.
Travelers to backcountry areas of North America should also take precautions with water. Even though the water in high mountain lakes looks sparkling clear, it may be contaminated with Giardia intestinalis, the parasite that causes giardiasis . Take simple precautions to avoid this illness, such as boiling the water.
To learn more, see the topic Food Poisoning and Safe Food Handling.
Swimming and water sports
Swimming in contaminated fresh water, such as ponds or rivers, can expose you to diseases. Even swimming pools with inadequate chlorination pose a risk. Talk to your doctor if you plan on doing recreational water sports—such as white-water rafting, adventure racing, or kayaking—in tropical and backcountry regions.
To prevent fungal or parasitic infections and injuries, do not go barefoot. Try to keep your feet as clean and dry as possible.
Although sea water is usually safe from disease, swimming or diving in sea water can still be dangerous. Avoid swimming or wading in sea water near a river, estuary, or other outlet from inland. Swimming when you have an open cut or sore can also increase your risk of getting an infection. In developing countries, sea water around big cities and other populated areas may not be safe. For more information, see the topic Marine Stings and Scrapes.
Malaria is the insect-borne disease of most concern to travelers in tropical and subtropical regions. Although antimalarial medicines kill the malaria parasite in the bloodstream, this protection isn't complete. Take protective measures along with taking antimalarial medicine.
Ticks inhabit many regions, including Europe, Canada, and the United States. Although it is rare for travelers to contract diseases from ticks, some of the diseases are serious. For information on how to prevent tick bites, see the topic Tick Bites.
Here are some tips that can help you avoid mosquitoes and other insects:
Do not use home remedies like eating garlic, rubbing garlic on your skin, or taking vitamin B. They do not prevent bites.
Sun and heat exposure
Many travelers underestimate the sun's strength and overestimate the amount of protection their sunscreens offer. This can add up to at least an uncomfortable sunburn and, at worst, life-threatening heatstroke .
Steps you can take to protect yourself from the sun include using sunscreen, wearing hats, and drinking plenty of fluids.
Although disease is a big risk while you are traveling, you should also be aware of the risk of injury.
Altitude sickness happens when you can't get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes. This causes symptoms such as a headache and loss of appetite. The best treatment for altitude sickness is to go to a lower altitude. But if you have mild symptoms, you may be able to stay at the higher altitude and let your body get used to it.
Steps to prevent altitude sickness include eating breads, grains, and pasta and not flying directly from low altitudes to high altitudes.
Scuba diving safety
You will learn about safety in your scuba diving certification class. If you plan to get certified while traveling, find an experienced, certified teacher that you feel comfortable with. Several groups, including the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), certify instructors and dive shops all over the world.
If you are a new diver, it is best to go with an experienced guide, also called a dive master. Most accidents and problems occur when divers ignore the rules and push their limits. Here are some general diving rules:
What to Do if You Get Ill
If you become seriously ill while traveling, your country's embassy or consulate can help you find medical care. For a complete list of embassies and consulates, see the U.S. Department of State website at www.usembassy.gov. You can also get the contacts for local doctors and medical clinics. If you become ill with a fever or flu-like illness while traveling, seek medical attention immediately.
Traveler's diarrhea is the most common illness when traveling. Most cases get better within 1 to 3 days without medical treatment.
Most doctors recommend trying to keep to your normal diet as much as possible. If you are vomiting, this may be hard. Try drinking clear liquids. Watch for signs of dehydration, such as a dry mouth and dark-colored urine. If possible, drink rehydration drinks to replace lost fluids and electrolytes. Before you go, buy dry packets of oral rehydration mix at a drugstore.
See a doctor if diarrhea doesn't subside or if you have a high fever, blood or mucus in your stools or signs of dehydration . Watch closely for signs of dehydration in children , because children with diarrhea can quickly become seriously dehydrated.
Your doctor may be able to give you antibiotics to take if you get diarrhea. They may help reduce the number of days you have the problem. But don't take antibiotics to prevent diarrhea.
Antidiarrheal medicines, such those containing bismuth (examples include Pepto-Bismol and Bismatrol) or Imodium A-D (nonprescription) and Lomotil (prescription), give relief from cramping and frequent stools. But you shouldn't take them if you have a fever or blood or mucus in your stools.
See a doctor right away if you have bloody diarrhea.
To learn more, see the topic Traveler's Diarrhea.
If you have been healthy during your trip and feel well when you return home, you probably don't need to see a doctor. But if you've been ill, especially while traveling to regions where disease is prevalent, you need to see a doctor.
Many diseases don't show up right away. Some take weeks to months to develop. For example, 90% of travelers who get malaria don't become ill until after they return home. 2
See your doctor when you get home if either of the following occurs:
Tell your doctor the regions you visited and about any exposure to disease.
It's important to be aware of other symptoms besides a fever. See your doctor if you have:
Other Places To Get Help
Last Revised: March 28, 2012
Fischer M, et al. (2010). Japanese encephalitis vaccines: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR, 59(01): 1–27.
Spira AM (2003). Assessment of travellers who return home ill. Lancet, 361(9367): 1459–1469.
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