Travel Health Tips

Getting sick while traveling is the worst! You save your money, get time off work and then get stuck in your hotel room feeling miserable or even worse, need to visit a hospital. These travel health tips will help you deal with and hopefully avoid some common travel maladies.

Why am I qualified to give out advice on this subject? I am a nurse practitioner with primary and critical care experience for over 10 years and a frequent traveler. I won’t give any advice that isn’t based on good medical principles.

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1.   Get Travel Insurance

If you can afford to travel, you can afford travel insurance. It is necessary unless you have some amazing policy from your employer that covers you in other countries. Definitely worth looking into. There are many good companies out there but I use Travelex.

2. Strengthen your immune system and limit exposure to bacteria and viruses (aka “germs”)

This is a big one and I’m going to spend some time here. This is the reason all things go wrong in our bodies when it comes to acquiring infections while traveling. Traveling can be stressful (navigating the airport can make me  homicidal) and stress of any kind weakens your immune system.  Airplanes are notoriously dirty. The tray tables, the arm rests, the remote controls, and other things are never sanitized nor even wiped. Not to mention you are trapped in this big tube with hundreds of other people, many who may be sick, coughing and lacking some basic hygiene and etiquette! I’ve seen people put their hands in body parts they just shouldn’t while in public and I’ll spare you the details!

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Let’s now add jet lag, change of diet, lack of sleep, disruption of fitness routine, exposure to new and different foods and this just adds to the body’s propensity to become ill. A strong immune system is your best weapon against all these pesky germs we encounter whether it be on the plane, from other travelers or from food in foreign countries.

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What can you do?

  • Don’t Smoke (this impairs your body’s ability to heal and fight off infections)
  • Stay hydrated
  • Get enough sleep
  • Maintain a healthy weight and fitness
  • Diet high in fruits and veggies
  • Adequate vaccinations. CDC website has all the info you need.
  • Alcohol in Moderation (this is hard, I know. The struggle is real)
  • Frequent Hand Washing  This is probably the most important. I can’t emphasize this enough. When traveling and away from a sink, bring Purel or alcohol based hand sanitizer in your purse and have with you always. Do not use the fancy smelling ones with antibacterial ingredients in them. These only kill certain bacteria and allow others to flourish on your skin. Gross! Also, when confronted with a sink that does not have hot water or  just a nasty bar of soap, DON’T USE THAT SOAP.  Friction is the most important part of hand washing. Use cold water, no soap and just spend at least a minute rubbing your hands together vigorously getting all the nooks and crannies.

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For more advice on how to strengthen your immune system, I will direct you to the experts at Harvard University for further reading on this subject. 

3. Clot prevention

On long flights or any long period of immobility, you are at higher risk for a blood clot to develop in your lower legs. This is because the blood in the veins cannot pump as well and the blood pools because of gravity. If you are dehydrated, this risk is increased. If you are over 35 years old, on the birth control pill or a smoker, you are at higher risk.

On long flights, stay hydrated, move as much as  you can, consider compression stockings,  and pump your feet up and down a few times every hour or so to keep the blood moving. I actually take a baby Aspirin for these flights but I would check with your doctor before doing this. If you ever have calf pain, redness, heat or swelling in the lower legs after a flight or long drive, seek medical attention quickly.

4. Stomach problems

This is likely the most common traveler complaint. Traveler’s diarrhea may affect up to 30% of travelers in foreign countries. This is due to contaminated food or water. Never drink tap water in other countries until you have researched whether or not it is safe.  This is usually not life threatening but very unpleasant. It’s best to let it work itself out of your system. Meanwhile rest your stomach with easy to digest foods like  rice, bread, bananas or yogurt. Stay hydrated. Coconut water is a great help in this situation. If after a couple days it isn’t better or you have a fever, you should probably seek medical attention. If you feel nauseated or have vomiting, follow this same advice and I suggest ginger beverages or ginger tablets.

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For more information and lists of countries where the tap water is safe to drink, here is link to Center for Disease Control

5. Urinary Tract Infections (UTI)

Unfortunately these are quite common especially for the ladies because of anatomical differences.  Being dehydrated, frequent sexual intercourse, and low immunity are risk factors. These sometimes will go away on their own after a couple days but you will be a bit miserable, with frequent urge to urinate and burning upon urination, even bloody urine.  Hydration is essential. There is no evidence that cranberry juice is better than water but if you have it available and like it, it is a fluid after all.  There is an over the counter medicine called Azo that really helps with the symptoms while you wait for it to go away. I don’t know what the foreign counterpart is so I suggest traveling with it or asking a local pharmacist in whatever country you’re visiting.

If after a couple of days, symptoms are worse or you have back pain or high fever, you may need antibiotics. Everybody knows Cipro but there are lots of Cipro resistant UTI’s out there. Bactrim is a good cheap antibiotic but you can’t take if you are allergic to Sulfa.  Macrobid (also called nitrofurantoin) is another one that is cheap and effective. You can ask the pharmacist if they have either of these. I try to have these before a trip and take them with me just in case.

6.  Hangovers

Is there anything worse then a hangover?  I will admit, I’m usually a healthy person but sometimes I think I’m still 18 and try to party like I am, but the hangover reminds me that I am much, much older than 18! Essentially your body treats alcohol like a poison that must be detoxified by the liver. Also, alcohol causes your kidneys to release water (we all know this from our frequent bathroom trips while imbibing) and you end up severely dehydrated. The dehydration and toxins cause a variety of symptoms including headache and upset stomach.

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Hydration is paramount. Again, I think coconut water with it’s natural electrolytes helps a lot. Pedialyte or similar children’s electrolyte solutions are great. Ginger drinks help the upset stomach. Watermelon water which is sold at Whole Foods in the USA is also a great new item to try.  I avoid Gatorade and sports drinks because of the high sugar content. Definitely ibuprofen or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for the headache.  There are prescription anti-nausea drugs you can request your doctor to prescribe and take with you on your trip. Phenergan (comes in both pill and suppository form) or Zofran (comes in pill or orally dissolving tablet).

There is a vitamin supplement that I have not tried but have friends who swear by it. I read the ingredients and I think it looks promising. It’s called DrinkWel and available on Amazon.

7.  Common Cold or Flu

The cold and flu viruses are just ridiculously easy to get. Keeping  your immune system strong and hand washing are the best defense but sometimes it still happens. These are both caused by viruses and therefore antibiotic do not work. Taking antibiotics is actually bad for your immune system and bad for your GI tract (your stomach).

There are many misconceptions and old wive’s tales about these things. Cold weather, wet hair, sleeping with a fan, etc DO NOT CAUSE infections. Viruses and bacteria cause infections.

Cold vs. Flu can be tricky. Both have similar symptoms: sore throat, fatigue, muscle aches, fever, chest discomfort. With the flu these are always more severe particularly the muscle aches and fever. Only a lab test can tell you for sure. With the flu sometimes, if severe, you need a doctor who can prescribe Tamiflu.

The average virus lasts 9 days. Could be less, could be longer. A viral bronchitis (nasty cough) can last a month. Very annoying.

I sound like a broken record, but stay hydrated. Fluids make all the functions of your body operate at peak levels, including your immune system. Eat a healthy diet. You need your proteins, vitamins and minerals to aid in the healing process. Do you need vitamin C supplements or echinacea? I don’t believe so and no research proves that it helps however, it doesn’t hurt.  Should you make foods high in vitamin C such as oranges, tangerines, mangoes, papaya, leafy greens, broccoli, and tomatoes, a part of your diet? Absolutely.  Not to mention that leafy greens such as spinach and kale have anti-inflammatory qualities which means that it helps your immune system and helps fight off the muscle aches you may have.

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Here are some helpful pharmaceuticals you may need:

  • Tylenol (acetominophen) will help with sore throat, fever or muscle aches as will aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin)
  • Pseudoephedrine with or without an antihistamine can help with sinus congestion and a runny nose.
  • Guaifenesin (found in many over the counter cold medicines) can loosen up thick secretions and mucus and help with chest congestion, coughing and sinus congestion.
  • Dextromethorphan (also found in many cold medicines) is a cough suppressant.
  • Codeine is a very effective cough suppressant to use at night, since it may cause sleepiness. Some countries this is available without a prescription but not in the United States.

8. Homeopathic and Other Natural Remedies

I hesitate to even start this section since this is not well researched in western medicine but I do believe there are lots of good treatments for various problems out there. I mentioned earlier coconut water and ginger. I would love to hear from you in the comments below and share your tips. I will try anything and write about it if it works and give you credit!!!

Stay healthy my friends, stay healthy.

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