The Key To A Healthy, Safe Overseas Trip: Planning Ahead

A healthy, happy family at the airport ready for a trip

Madison, Wisconsin - It's just about that time of year: Vacation season.


If your summer travels will take you to another country, you've probably already made plans for transportation and lodging. But have you thought about what you can do to make sure you have a healthy and safe trip?


"Probably the most important thing is really to plan ahead," said Elaine Rosenblatt, NP, who sees patients at the UW Health University Station Clinic and has worked in Travel Medicine for nearly 40 years. "It's really just being prepared, thinking ahead and remembering that to stay healthy during the trip takes some preparation.


"Most people are most worried about infectious diseases and vaccines, and that's great and very important, but actually not the most important thing to consider."


For the most part, Rosenblatt said, the top causes of death and injury when traveling are exactly the same as if you were staying at home.


"So what's really important is that before you travel, you make sure that you're healthy," she said. "Make sure everything is OK with your blood pressure and your heart and your medications, and that you're all up to date on your regular health screenings."


A good way to start planning is a visit to a Travel Medicine Clinic - UW Health has a clinic at UW Hospital and Clinics for children and adults, in addition to University Station, where there are separate Adult and Pediatric Travel Medicine Clinics. You'll want your appointment to be at least four weeks before you depart, so try to schedule it six to eight weeks before your trip.


Travel Medicine providers can assist with any vaccines that might be necessary, which vary depending on your destination. Some countries require vaccines be administered during a certain timeframe before someone's visit. Other patients might need medication to help them deal with motion sickness if they'll be on a boat for a significant period of time, or discuss how to prevent altitude sickness if they'll be spending time at high altitudes.


But what's the most common preventable disease that travelers face and can be vaccinated against? Something that's common at home, again: The flu.


"So probably one of the single-most important things to do is to get your flu shot," Rosenblatt said. "If you know that you're going to be traveling this year, even if you don't usually get your flu shot, it's a smart idea to do."


Another thing on the checklist is checking in with your insurance company. You'll want to know what things will be covered and what won't be when you're out of the country. Are travel vaccines covered? What about animal bites? Depending on where you're visiting, you might consider evacuation insurance - a company will take you to the closest hospital that offers necessary procedures or treatments in an emergency.


If you are on any medication, Rosenblatt recommends taking an extra week's worth with you on your trip. And keep the medication in your carry-on bag, rather than in your luggage in case your suitcase ends up getting lost. Along with it, bring a list of those medications with their generic name. "Our brand names here are not the same as abroad," she said.


What should you do if you lose your medication while abroad?


"One thing that we've learned is that almost 50% of all medications abroad are counterfeit," Rosenblatt said. "So you want to go to as best a reputable pharmacy or hospital as you can."


That's another reason why a visit to a Travel Medicine clinic is beneficial: UW Health subscribes to a service that researches such things and can provide listings of the most reliable hospitals in the area you're headed to.


Rosenblatt has a few more suggestions for that carry-on: Some bottled water, a small first aid kit and the phone number of the U.S. Embassy in the country you'll be visiting.


"If you're sick in a hotel, it's very hard for you to get out to a pharmacy and get supplies," she said. "Here in the United States, you can find a Walgreens or a CVS on every corner - and sometimes on opposite corners. You can't always do that when you're traveling, so you want to come with your own supplies.


"We're so used to things being available to us in the United States - in 2 seconds, you can find bottled water or a soda or coffee or a snack, but you cannot count on that in other countries. So when you're traveling, you need to always have water, you need to always have snacks if you have kids or if you have diabetes. You can't just assume you'll be able to find something you need in a short period of time, especially if there is a language barrier."


Rosenblatt said it's generally a good idea to check in with the U.S. Embassy in whatever country you're in, and their staffers can be a good source if you need to find a quality pharmacy or hospital or access the healthcare system.


Also, remember that safety standards across the world are not the same as they are in the U.S.


"Here, all cars have seatbelts and all cars have airbags and other safety features. Not so in many other countries," Rosenblatt said. "And the roads in some countries make Wisconsin in the winter look good. ... So it's really important that if you're going to rent a car, you make sure you check it out and make sure it has safety equipment in it, especially if you're taking a baby and making sure that you have a proper carseat. If you're going biking or motorcycling, that you have helmets."


Drowning is also among the top causes of death and injury for travelers under age 50, Rosenblatt said: "So make sure you're watching your kids in any kind of water."


All in all, though, you shouldn't be too worried about traveling abroad with children.


"In some respects, kids are more resilient, because they don't let things bother them. And they don't have to pay attention to some of the details," Rosenblatt said. "They're usually up to date on their routine immunizations - which we cannot always say about adults - but they may need additional vaccines to cover typhoid or other diseases.


"But even if they're all up to date on vaccines, you may want to talk to your health care provider about what to do if they get diarrhea. Kids get stressed when they're traveling, they eat things that are different, they certainly may get exposed to infectious diarrhea. Watching a kid suffer from infectious diarrhea is no fun, nor is it any fun for the parent who has to clean it up. So you really want to make sure you talk to your provider about what would be the most appropriate treatment."

Date Published: 06/12/2015

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