Financial Resource Center

Travel Medicine Tips for Traveling Abroad

by Sharyn Alden / November 24th, 2003

Imagine how frustrated you'd feel if you lost your prescription medicine abroad and you didn't have a refillable prescription. Or imagine what predicament you might be in if an emergency health situation forced you to evacuate to the nearest hospital, which could be in another country, and your insurance didn't cover costly international evacuation services. You may never experience scenarios like these, but the chances lessen if you prepare before you leave home.

Check health advisories

Don't assume international travel means packing your clothes and getting on a plane. Weeks before leaving, scrutinize health and travel advisories that affect your itinerary. Read bulletins reported by a variety of organizations to help you plan ahead. Then see your physician or travel medicine center, typically connected with a health-care organization, to determine what vaccinations you might need.

Determine what shots you need

Your primary care physician or travel medicine clinic physicians and nurses should be able to tell you if your vaccinations are up to date. Joyce Despain, registered nurse with the University of Wisconsin Health Travel Medicine Clinic in Madison, says, "Make sure your tetanus and diphtheria shots are up to date, as well as measles, mumps, and rubella." She also suggests taking copies of your vaccination records with you. If you're hiking or doing wilderness camping, you may need a series of three rabies shots, not just one. And don't forget about getting a flu shot if you have chronic disease or are age 65 or older.

Bring the right paperwork

You wouldn't consider going to Italy, Chile, or Japan without your passport, and you also should consider traveling with a letter from your doctor describing your specific medical conditions; the names of your prescriptions, including generic names; as well as extra prescriptions in case you need refills. It's good to have your primary physician's telephone number and e-mail address with you, too. The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consulate Affairs also recommends that international travelers carry their insurance ID card with them, as well as a claim form.
The No. 1 health problem for travelers involves accidents with cars.
If you have special medical conditions such as diabetes or epilepsy, discuss your travel plans with your doctor before leaving. Depending on your medical condition, itinerary, and length of travel outside the U.S., you might want to carry copies of your health and hospital records. Or you can subscribe to a service like Global Med Net, which stores your records, then faxes them as requested. One more thing: Don't forget to wear your medical alert bracelet. Another helpful tool is a list of English-speaking doctors and clinics in 125 countries provided by the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers.

Need extra medical or cancellation insurance policies?

Check with your travel agent as well as your insurance agent to see what additional coverage you may need. It's always a good idea to buy coverage that includes evacuation insurance, because emergency transport can cost thousands of dollars. Most insurance policies covering travelers fall into two categories: They either make direct payments for international medical care to health-care providers, or they reimburse you after you've filed a claim. The second type means you have to pay expenses out of pocket. Travel specialists often recommend you buy trip interruption insurance, and while this may seem like an added and unnecessary cost, it can save you a lot of money. If you miss your trip because of an illness, accident, or injury, or if the trip is delayed because of unexpected circumstances and you can't depart on the new schedule, you'll be glad you're covered. Always read the exclusions in your policy to see what is not covered. If scuba diving is not covered, and you're planning on going to Australia for a scuba diving vacation, the policy probably won't do you much good.

Don't let bugs make your trip bite

If you're traveling to tropical and subtropical areas pack insect repellent with a 30% concentration of the active ingredient deet. Despain says, "Look for repellents that are control-released, and don't absorb--these will last longer." Sawyer's Insect Repellent is one type that offers long protection, from eight to 24 hours, even if you get wet.
In developing countries, virtually every type of uncooked food is potentially contaminated with bacteria.
Mosquitoes and other insects can be dangerous to your health because they are frequent carriers of diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and Japanese encephalitis. When you check health advisories, you may find malaria is a problem. Malaria, an ancient mosquito-borne disease, caused 900 million people to become sick last year, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. It's important to start antimalarial drugs like Lariam or Malarone before you leave home--another reason to see your physician or travel medicine clinic a few weeks in advance of your trip. Another way to protect yourself against insects is to dress smart. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants and avoid wearing perfumes and aftershave lotions. Don't get into bed unless mosquito netting was draped around it earlier in the day. The best way to be in control of your health is to pack portable netting available at outlets like Travel Medicine, Inc. And speaking of bugs, it may be tempting to bring along your own pillow, but you're better off without it. Why? Bedbugs. They're sometimes found in the bedding of the nicest establishments, so why risk bringing them home?

Pack a minipharmacy

It's not judicious to pack an enormous array of medical supplies when you're traveling abroad, so carefully plan what items to put in your medical or first-aid kit. In addition to the prescription medicine you regularly take, pack aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), antidiarrheal meds like Pepto tablets. Include over-the-counter antacids for heartburn, earplugs to reduce pain caused by air travel, and motion or sea sickness drugs or patches. Make room for a thermometer, scissors, tweezers (for removing ticks), bandages, antibiotic ointment, and tape to treat minor burns, bites, cuts, and abrasions. Put scissors and tweezers in your suitcase, not a carry-on bag, so they're not confiscated at the airport. Even though every traveler's medical kit should meet his or her own needs, you can buy general medical kits from sporting goods stores and pharmacies.
Malaria, an ancient mosquito-borne disease, caused 900 million people to become sick last year.
Here's another tip about carrying prescriptions: Carry your prescription medicines in their original containers, not in pill boxes you purchased. You could be suspected of carrying illegal drugs if you have unlabeled containers. If you wear glasses or contact lenses, pack extra pairs with you along with their prescriptions.

Watch what you eat and drink

One of the biggest concerns for travelers is whether to drink the water or eat the food. When in doubt, don't, because food and water can be contaminated with disease-carrying parasites and viruses. In developing countries virtually every type of uncooked food is potentially contaminated with bacteria. Eat only cooked food that is piping hot. Those tempting dishes often found at outdoor markets may have been cooked, but they could have been standing for an indefinite period of time. You also can eat food like bananas, which you peel, and dry and starchy foods like rice, bread, or crackers. Avoid dairy products like ice cream made from creams. What about water? The smartest way to travel safe is to avoid drinking nonbottled water and drinks with ice cubes, and brushing your teeth with tap water. Instead, buy bottled water, or purify water by adding iodine-based purification tables like those available from Potable Aqua. One bottle containing 50 tablets costs about $4.50. Despain says don't overlook this simple approach to decreasing the possibility of transmitting disease: "Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly when you travel." What is the most common health problem travelers overseas face? It's not caused by contamination, disease, bacteria, or insects. No, the No. 1 health problem for travelers involves accidents with cars. Wear seatbelts in cars, helmets when riding bicycles or scooters, and avoid becoming distracted when crossing streets Seasoned travelers know that when you travel internationally, you potentially put yourself at risk for a variety of health problems. But they also know that, if you prepare before you leave home, you're in for a great adventure.
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