Tips – Staying Healthy on the Road

Planning

It pays to see a travel doctor well before you depart to arrange vaccinations, a basic medical kit and to be aware of potential infection and health issues in the places you plan to visit.  We take for granted in first world countries clean water and food and immediate access to health care.  Independent travel in developing countries, in particular, requires additional preparation to stay healthy and contingency plans for emergencies.

Usual Medications and Hygiene

If you take regular medications then ensure that you have a sufficient supply with you to last your whole trip.  Keep some on your person or in your daypack in case you are unlucky enough to have your main luggage stolen or lost.  Replacement medications can be purchased at pharmacies without a ‘prescription’ in many countries, but the quality of the ingredients may not be guaranteed. Female sanitary products eg. pads / tampons may not be readily available in some countries so supplies may need to be brought from home. It is probably also unwise to rely on the quality and availability of condoms in developing countries.

Food and Water

The most common health problems encountered by travellers will be food or water – borne vomitting / diarrhoeal illnesses. ‘Traveller’s diarrhoea’ can commonly result from drinking water from a new source, even if ‘safe’. Most drinking or potable water still contains very low counts of bacteria – some people may be susceptible to gastrointestinal upset (diarrhoea, ‘rumbling’ and cramps) until they’re used to the new water ‘content’.

Unless you’re sure of the water quality it’s worth having a water purification system with you.  Buying bottled water becomes expensive and plastic bottles are an environmental disaster for developing countries.  I use SteriPEN and treat water as I go. (Strangely enough I often get traveller’s diarrhoea when I get home as I’m used to drinking sterilized water by then!)  Handwashing or using hand sanitizer before eating are also important for preventing infection.

Food should be a new adventure in every country.  Street food can be a great option if the ingredients look fresh and it’s cooked right in front of you.  Be careful with fruits and salads (unless you can peel or wash them yourself) as they can often be washed in ‘unclean’water.  Either ask for drinks without ice cubes or check if they’ve been made from purified water.

Swimming and Water-Borne Infections

Swimming in the ocean or sea is usually safe from an infection standpoint, but grazes and marine injury can be an exception.  Fresh water rivers and lakes, however, can be the source of some serious and chronic parasitic and worm infestations.  Ask if it’s safe before swimming or wading.

Malaria

Malarial infection remains a major cause of death in the tropics around the world including Africa, Asia and the Americas.  The tiny parasites multiply inside red blood cells in the blood stream until the cell swells and ‘explodes’ releasing more parasites to infect new red blood cells.  This causes the periodic high fevers (and a range of other symptoms and problems including death!) Mosquitoes are the key to transmission and avoiding mosquito bites is the key to prevention.  In malarial areas precaution should be taken to cover up with light-coloured clothing and to apply appropriate insect repellent to exposed skin (usually recommended to contain one of the following active ingredients ‘DEET’ (diethyltoluamide), picaridin or icaridin and OLE (oil of lemon eucalyptus)). Wherever possible a mosquito net (especially permethrin treated) should be used for sleeping.

Antimalaria prophylaxis medication should be discussed with a travel doctor.  It is usually commenced prior to arriving in a malaraial area and continued for up to 2 weeks after (to cover the ‘incubation period’).  It is still important to take maximum precaution to avoid being bitten even when taking medication.

Emergency Medical Kit

Most travellers should have a basic medical or first aid kit which includes antiseptic wipes (alcohol or iodine based), wound dressings and a bandage, antidiarrhoeal medication and rehydration salts, and simple or stronger analgaesics (check on any restrictions for carrying strong analgaesics eg Codeine in United Arab Emirates).

I also carry indigestion / antacid tablets, anti-nausea tablets, motion sickness tablets, antihistamine tablets, and anti-inflammatory tablets.

It is usually a good idea to have antibiotics on hand to treat common infections when travelling in developing countries.  You must obtain good advice and instructions on how to diagnose and when to commence a course of antibiotics.  People still die regularly from allergic reactions to antibiotics (eg. penicillin) so doublecheck before you take it or before you give it to somebody else that there isn’t an allergy.

My medical kit contains antibiotics for:

Urinary / Diarrhoeal ‘Dysentery’ Infections eg. Norfloxacin

Giardia ‘parasitic’ Watery Diarrhoea eg. Tinidazole

Respiratory / Sinus / Tonsillitis / Chest Infections eg. Amoxycillin clavulanate (contains penicillin)

Skin infections / Cellulitis eg. Cephalexin

 

 

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