Kristy Alpert is a freelance writer and editor with extensive experience covering travel, food, and lifestyle topics.
Whether you’re flying off to an exotic location or heading home from a cross-country road trip, there’s one all too common souvenir you’ll want to avoid bringing back from your next trip. Travel illnesses can range from simple sunburns to vicious viruses, and, unfortunately, they’re one thing that is sure to ruin any vacation.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that each year nearly 65 percent of travelers report a health problem of some sort during their travels. Although most of those illnesses are relatively mild, varying in severity from traveller’s diarrhea to respiratory infections to skin disorders, an average of eight percent of those cases require urgent medical care either while abroad or after returning home.
One study conducted by Rx for Travel Health found that the most common illnesses travelers pick up included sunburn (62 percent), motion or seasickness (34 percent), allergic reactions (34 percent), Montezuma’s revenge (23 percent), and food poisoning (12 percent).
There’s nothing worse than getting sick while on the road, and sadly travel related illnesses only become more and more likely the more often you travel as you expose yourself to a whole new range of parasites, foods, bugs, and people. Breathing in recycled air on airlines doesn’t help, nor does rubbing shoulders with crowds of tourists at famous landmarks, but since both can’t (and shouldn’t) be avoided, the best defense is a good offense.
Some travel illness can be prevented with frequent hand washing and by wearing long-sleeved clothing in mosquito infested areas, but since many are unpredictable, the only thing you can do is to be prepared ahead of time so you can treat them as soon as possible. Here are the most common travel illnesses and what you need to know about avoiding and treating them so you can spend more time exploring and less time recovering.
1. Traveler’s Diarrhea. Nearly 40 percent of international travelers will get a form of traveler’s diarrhea at some point during their travels. It is the most common type of travel sickness, and is one of the most unpredictable as it can be the result of a variety of causes. The most frequent cause is food and beverage related, stemming from raw or undercooked meat, fish, water, and vegetables. Consuming contaminated food or beverages can lead to diarrhea, bloating, nausea, dehydration, and even death if not immediately treated with antibiotics or fluids. Water quality in Asia, Central America, South America, the Middle East, and Africa can affect many travelers not accustomed to the local water standards. But Westerners shouldn’t just avoid drinking from the tap; locally made ice and vegetables and fruits that have been washed in local water can also cause upset stomachs (although fruits and vegetables where you don’t eat the skin, such as bananas and oranges, are typically safe). The safest bet is to avoid any food you may question (“when in doubt, don’t!”), and choose bottled water when possible (seltzer water is the safest since it’s easier to notice a counterfeit as opposed to still water that sometimes gets refilled locally and resold in the name brand bottle) for drinking and even for brushing your teeth.
2. The Common Cold and Flu. The Journal of Environmental Health Research reports that colds may be more than 100 times more likely to be transmitted on a plane than during normal daily life on the ground due to low humidity from the high elevation. Getting plenty of sleep and staying hydrated before, during, and after airline travel is a great way to keep your immune system up, but frequent hand washing will go a long way when coming in contact with airborne germs. Getting an annual flu shot is also a good idea, but the earlier you get the shot the more effective it will be since it typically takes a few weeks to build up your immunities. Load your carry on with acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease body aches and fever if you do contract the flu while on vacation, and make sure to contact your local pharmacy when you return home to see if it’s safe for you to take any antiviral drugs (oseltamivir, zanamivir, amantadine, or rimantadine) or flu & cold medications.
3. Altitude Sickness. Unless you’re used to hanging out in altitudes over 4,000 feet, altitude sickness can be a real downer to an otherwise high-octane vacation. Altitude sickness occurs when your body is exposed to higher elevations where the oxygen levels are lower. Symptoms can come on fast (such as when you go up a mountain quickly) or they can worsen over time (like when staying in a very high altitude city, like Cusco, Peru). Symptoms include shortness of breath, headaches, difficulty sleeping, nausea, fatigue, and muscle pains. Drinking plenty of water, avoiding alcohol, and eating a high calorie diet goes a long way in treating and preventing altitude sickness. When extra oxygen is not available, pain relievers like ibuprofen can help, and acetazolamide (Diamox) can actually work as both a prevention and treatment for altitude sickness.
4. Norovirus. The Norovirus is more crudely referred to as the winter vomiting bug, and has made headlines recently as the culprit for many premature cruise ship dockings as entire passenger ships have become infected with this highly contagious virus. It is the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis, affecting up to 267 million people per year, and is typically found in colder climates and confined spaces like cruise ships. The virus is traced to food that has been contaminated with fecal matter, but it only takes one traveler to contract the virus before anyone who comes in contact with that person will develop similar symptoms. Common symptoms include diarrhea, low-grade fever, forceful vomiting, and fatigue. The illness comes on fast and leaves quickly, but it’s a good idea to travel with a pain reliever like ibuprofen or ask your doctor if it’s safe for you to take domperidone.
5. Sunburns. Caused from overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV), sunburns can range from mild to severe, and in some cases can result in flu-like symptoms including fevers, chills, nausea, headaches, and fatigue. This skin illness is most common in adults 18-29 years old, where the CDC has found that 65 percent of white people in that age group report at least one sunburn per year. Exposing your skin to the sun during a beach vacation is part of the experience, but a sunburn doesn’t have to be included in your trip. Avoid peeling, blistering skin by applying an Ombrelle UVA+UVB sunscreen and lip balm with a minimum SPF of 30 throughout your time in the sun. If a sunburn does occur, painkillers can help, but try to take a cool bath and drink plenty of water while avoiding further sun exposure.
6. Motion Sickness. Motion sickness can also be referred to as car sickness, sea sickness, or even plane sickness. Ultimately, it’s a sickness that stems from an inner ear disturbance reacting to repeated motion (i.e., you body feels motion when you can’t see it). Motion sickness typically affects children, pregnant women, and people prone to headaches and migraines. Symptoms can include vomiting, nausea, dizziness, and sweating. Avoiding alcohol and spicy foods before traveling can help, but if you do develop motion sickness while traveling, you can try getting some fresh air, eating dry crackers, sipping a clear fizzy drink, and looking at the horizon. If you notice you’re prone to motion sickness, talk to your doctor about taking scopolamine or Dramamine to reduce nausea.
7. Insect Bites. Although a direct insect bite may not necessarily be considered an illness, what the insect carries can result in some pretty gruesome travel illnesses. Everything from West Nile to Lyme disease or even Malaria can be contracted from a single insect bite. It’s wise to check the Canadian Travel recommendations for which viruses are present in the country to which you are traveling. Countries in Africa, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the South Pacific are more prone to mosquito and insect spread viruses like malaria and yellow fever. Symptoms vary greatly from these viruses, but many people report flu-like symptoms, including chills, nausea, fevers, and fatigue even as late as one month after returning from a trip overseas. If you notice any of these symptoms along with a bug bite, see medical attention immediately. For malaria, ask your doctor is quinine if right for you. The best way to avoid getting bitten while traveling to a mosquito prone area is to wear long-sleeved clothing tucked into long pants with a hat to protect the top of your head from falling insects like ticks. Insects are more active during the early morning and evening, so it’s wise to plan ahead if you know you’ll be out during those hours by applying an insect repellent containing DEET to your clothing and skin.
Before traveling to a foreign country, it’s always a good idea to check with your medical provider to see if there are any precautions you can take so you can ensure your vacation runs smooth and illness-free!