Education makes travel good for your health

Don’t leave home without facts and information

During summer months, many people make travel plans. They book flights and hotel rooms and create lists of things they will need to do before they go or pack, such as finding a neighbor to water the yard or the perfect wardrobe for the tropics. Most forget to include medical preparations to protect their health on that list.

What people need to know about staying healthy while traveling depends on where they are going, says Abinash Virk, MD, director of the Mayo Travel and Geographic Medicine Clinic in Rochester, MN. This clinic helps travelers with medical preparations before a trip and treats those who acquire an illness while traveling. It also provides infectious disease evaluations for immigrants, refugees, and internationally adopted children.

"Europe is not a high-risk situation in terms of health hazards, so people only need to consider simple things like deep-vein thrombosis prevention (a problem that can arise on long flights)," she says. "However, people traveling to Mexico, Africa, Asia, or Latin America have a slightly higher risk of getting diarrhea or picking up a disease depending on where they are going, what they are doing, and how long they are going to stay there."

A specialist in travel medicine not always is necessary if staff members at a medical center are able to evaluate a patient’s medical needs for travel and address educational issues.

The first step in travel preparations for healthy people is to identify their vaccination status and make sure they are up to date with routine vaccines. Many diseases that are no longer common in the United States still are common in other countries. They also need to find out what travel-related vaccines they will need, says Virk.

For example, if people are going to a destination where they may contract typhoid, they would need a vaccination. "There are a whole host of vaccines that one may need specifically for certain types of travel," she says. 

It’s important that people learn about the country they plan to visit, including the health risks that they may encounter. Education about food and water precautions and personal hygiene such as hand washing is important. The two most common infectious disease problems when traveling to foreign countries are travelers’ diarrhea and respiratory illness, says Virk.

Mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria and dengue fever can be a problem in some areas, and travelers must take precautions before they go. Travelers need to carry along insect repellent and know how to use it correctly. Taking the necessary precautions to prevent contracting malaria is extremely important because the disease has a high mortality rate, she says.

In addition to learning about the proper immunizations, knowing what types of food to avoid, what to drink, and about protection from insect bites, which are the major topics. According to Virk, there is a lot of other information that could be important depending on the destination and activities planned. For example, how to prevent and treat sunburn or what to do if bitten by a jellyfish, she says.

Most people who die outside the United States are killed in automobile accidents, says Virk. Therefore, it is important to be aware of such health hazards as poor driving practices and take precautions such as securing safe transportation.

Traveling with health problems

People preparing to travel with medical problems have more to do to prepare for than the healthier traveler does. However, preparation can be simple or very complicated depending on the underlying medical problems, says Virk. For example, with people who have asthma, a physician might go through an algorithm of how they should handle an acute attack. Preparing a heart or liver transplant patient for a trip to Indonesia is more complicated, for they have to be taught how to keep from picking up a disease and how to monitor their drugs while away, she explains.

"People on blood thinners planning to travel for two months need to learn how to access medical care while in another country so they can have their blood thinner monitored," says Virk.

Everyone should make sure they fill prescriptions so they don’t run out of their medication while traveling. A good precaution is to take a typewritten copy of the prescription along. Those needing to carry such medical items as insulin syringes should obtain a letter from their physician that explains why these items are needed. They also should make sure that medical items are properly labeled, says Virk. Otherwise, they could be confiscated at border crossings or at airport security checks.

Anyone returning from an extended trip overseas needs to visit a physician or travel clinic to determine if he or she has been exposed to any diseases, such as tuberculosis. Depending on the type of exposure, certain tests might have to be done.

"The average traveler going for a week or two doesn’t need a return follow-up," says Virk. How-ever, those who develop symptoms such as fever, chills, and a headache after returning from a trip need to see a physician right away and make sure they report what part of the world they visited while the medical history is being taken. Without this information, a physician could label the illness influenza, and it could be malaria, which can be life-threatening.

"As part of the education in the travel clinic, we tell patients that upon their return, if they need to see a physician, to be sure to tell him or her that they were somewhere where they could have picked up something unusual," says Virk.

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For more information about educating patients about including health preparations in their travel plans, contact: