International travel is exciting, but it’s important to think through what can jeopardize your health while traveling. From disease outbreaks and poor water and food quality to testing and masking requirements, there are a number of things to consider.
Path to improved health
Before you travel, plan ahead:
- Check global government travel health advisories for the area to which you are traveling. This will tell you if there are health concerns restricting your travel or alerting you to important precautions to take.
- Some destinations require COVID testing prior to entry. This information may need to be entered into a country-specific travel portal. Links to these portals can be found on most international airline websites. Also, it is a good idea to travel with your COVID vaccine card.
- See your doctor at least 6 weeks before you leave. You may need immunizations or vaccinations for the areas you are visiting. Some vaccines don’t reach the highest protection until about 6 weeks after you get the shots.
- Have medical and dental check-ups before your trip. Be aware of health problems you have. Find out about medicines you’ll need to take with you.
- Find out what your health insurance will pay for if you see a doctor while you’re in another country. Carry enough of your regular prescription and over-the-counter medicines in their original containers. Carry extra prescriptions for the medicines as well. Bring your eyewear prescriptions. If you wear glasses and contacts, bring both. Wear a medical information bracelet, if needed. If you’re flying, make sure your prescription medication and eyewear are in your carry-on luggage.
- Bring a first-aid kit. Not all items listed below are necessary. You can customize your kit. It may include:
- Your prescription medicines, in their original containers.
- Medicine for diarrhea and upset stomach.
- An over-the-counter medicine for upset stomach.
- Antacid for indigestion.
- Cough and cold medicines.
- Pain medicines (aspirin, acetaminophen, naproxen, or ibuprofen).
- Decongestants and antihistamines for allergies (non-drowsy formula).
- Antibiotic ointment.
- A mask to cover your face and nose. This may be used to protect against a virus outbreak or high levels of pollution.
- Adhesive bandages.
- Hydrocortisone cream.
- Moleskin for blisters.
- Sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 and lip balm.
- Medicine for motion sickness (dimenhydrinate).
- Other medicines for nausea and altitude sickness (promethazine and acetazolamide).
- Scissors, tweezers, nail clippers, pocket knife (checked bags only if flying), thermometer, and a mirror.
- Hand wipes and hand sanitizer.
Consider what you’ll eat while traveling. If you’re going to a country with an increased risk of traveler’s diarrhea, plan to eat carefully. Hot, well-cooked food is usually safest. Avoid eating foods from street vendors, unpasteurized dairy products, and raw or uncooked seafood. Peel fruits yourself. Drink water from commercially sealed bottles. Or drink hot or carbonated beverages. Avoid ice. Use bottled water when you brush your teeth.
Things to consider
When you visit your doctor, he or she will decide whether or not you need any vaccines or other medicines. The vaccines you got when you were a child also may need to be updated if you’re not fully protected. Vaccines you may need include:
- H1N1 Influenza
- Hepatitis A or hepatitis A immune globulin
- Hepatitis B
- Influenza (the flu)
- Japanese encephalitis
- Meningococcal meningitis
- Tetanus and diphtheria toxoids
- Typhoid fever
- Varicella (chickenpox)
- Yellow fever
Sometimes, the amount of a certain vaccine cannot keep up with the number of people who need it. Some countries may offer medicines that have not been approved by the FDA in the U.S. Do not take an experimental drug without consulting your doctor first.
While you’re traveling:
- If you’re going to a country with an increased risk of mosquito-borne disease, protect yourself against insects. Insect repellents that contain DEET work the best. Wear permethrin-coated clothing and use bed nets while you sleep.
- If you’re going to a country with a risk of malaria, your doctor may prescribe preventive medicine for malaria. Start taking your malaria medicine before you leave on your trip. Take it during your travels and keep taking it for 4 weeks after you get home.
- Avoid swimming and other water activities in freshwater lakes and streams. Schistosomiasis (also called bilharziasis) is a disease you might be exposed to in some African streams and lakes.
- Try to avoid taking overcrowded transportation. Try not to ride in vehicles without safety belts. Wear a helmet if you’ll be riding a motorcycle. Try to avoid driving at night or in unfamiliar areas without local help and directions.
One of the most common issues you may encounter when traveling internationally is traveler’s diarrhea. You can get this by eating food or drinking water that contain germs. People get this illness in areas of the world where the drinking water isn’t clean.
Symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea include:
- stomach cramps
- bloody stools
If not treated, traveler’s diarrhea usually goes away in 4 to 5 days. However, there are some things you can do to feel better. Drink plenty of clear liquids. Take medicine, such as loperamide (brand name: Imodium). In some cases, you may need antibiotics (medicines that kill bacteria). Your doctor may prescribe these before you leave for your trip.
See a doctor right away if you have a fever higher than 102°F, are dehydrated, have blood in your stool or vomit several times. If treating your symptoms isn’t helping you feel better, talk with your doctor.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What vaccines should I get before I travel?
- What should I do if my trip is last minute and I don’t have time to get vaccinations?
- I have type 2 diabetes. What advice can you give me about eating abroad?
- If I get traveler’s diarrhea, who should I contact and when?
- Can you prescribe me an antibiotic to take on my trip in case I get traveler’s diarrhea?
- Are children at an increased risk of illness when traveling to other countries?
- Is air pollution a problem in some countries, and can that impact my asthma?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: COVID-19 Travel Recommendations by Country
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Resources for Travelers
National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus: Traveler’s Diarrhea Diet
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs: Travel Advisories
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.