How to Prevent Illness While Travelling

26th February, 2019

While you may have already been bitten by the travel bug and are busy planning your next holiday, take a minute to learn how you can avoid unwanted bugs and illnesses on your next trip. From protecting yourself from mosquito-borne illnesses to avoiding foreign tap water, there are many ways you can easily avoid getting sick while on holiday. 

While a cat may have nine lives, we humans are not so lucky. So we’ve made it easy for you to stay healthy, by creating a comprehensive guide with our medical expert Carmen Grau, on the top nine ways you can minimise your chances of getting sick. Whether you plan on travelling across country or halfway around the world, allow this helpful information to make your vacation memorable instead of one you’d rather forget. 

For those instances where you do fall ill despite all your preventative actions, let travel insurance come to the rescue by at least providing you medical and financial assistance to cover overseas medical expenses you may acquire.


Keep your hands clean

We can blame our hands for many of the germs and viruses that enter our bodies. When we touch contaminated surfaces, we create a free and easy travel service for germs to infect us when we proceed to then rub our eyes, nose, or mouth without first washing our hands. Embrace your inner germophobe on your next holiday by remembering to wash your hands as much as possible, especially before eating meals and snacks. 

Travelling to new destinations opens us up to a whole range of new germs and viruses our immune system hasn’t yet faced. We also put ourselves at a higher risk for contracting bugs since we pass through high traffic areas such as airports where sick individuals can easily pass their illnesses onto others. Be sure to wash your hands after visiting the loo, remembering to use soap, rub hands vigorously, wash for at least 20 seconds, turn off the tap using a towel or elbow, and making sure to use a clean towel to dry your hands. Hands-free air dryers have recently been proven to blast germs through the air into your face, so best to avoid them. Try flushing the toilet with a small bit of toilet paper, and because others may sadly not be as diligent about washing their hands, think about using your sleeve or a towel to open lavatory door handles when exiting. 

For those times when a tap may not be handy, bring along a few travel-sized hand sanitisers to disinfect your hands. They are perfect for places like the plane or before eating a meal at a restaurant. 


Limit direct contact with public surfaces 

By limiting what you touch, you greatly reduce your chance for picking up germs and viruses. Avoid touching public surfaces like handrails, arm rests, and counter-tops if possible. Many public surfaces such as elevator buttons, ATMs, plane tray tables, luggage trolley handles, and restaurant menus are difficult to avoid, that is why it is essential to carry hand sanitiser with you to disinfect your hands after a bout of feeling your way around the airport or hotel. Keep in mind that your hotel room is a public surface as well, with new people often entering on a daily basis. 

Things like TV remotes, light switches, and hotel guides rarely get cleaned and therefore often harbour germs. Carrying disinfecting wipes makes it easy to give things a quick once-over before settling in. You can also get creative and use tricks like placing the TV remote in a Ziploc bag if you want to be over-cautious.

In addition to avoiding public surfaces, refrain from sharing things like beverages, lip balm, and eating utensils with others when travelling. You may also want to limit your hand shakes when greeting others. 


Avoid consuming tap water 

While it may be safe to drink tap water from developed countries such as the United States, Australia, and many European countries, it’s always a good idea to stick with bottled water when travelling. Even regions that are considered to have safe drinking water may contain high levels of chlorine or other additives your body is unaccustomed to which can lead to an upset stomach. 

Tap water found in regions like Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America often contain microorganisms or pathogens which can lead to giardia, cholera, and traveller’s diarrhoea. Even if locals seem to be able to drink the water, it is often because they have built up an immunity to the impurities found in their local water. 

When purchasing or choosing bottle water, make sure the seal is not broken. Many higher-end hotels and airport lounges offer bottle water free of charge and you can easily visit a local supermarket in your travel destination to buy bottled water in bulk for a very reasonable price. 

Remember to avoid putting ice in beverages, as freezing tap water doesn’t kill bacteria. You should also avoid fruit and vegetables which may have been rinsed in tap water as they can become contaminated if they don’t have a protective skin that you yourself peel. Brush your teeth with bottled water as well, placing a bottle next to the sink in your hotel’s bathroom as a reminder. Even a small amount of contaminated water is enough to make you sick. 

Our resident medical expert adds that “at risk" risk individuals (as defined by the World Health Organisation), for example people with weakened immune systems, pregnant women and infants are groups especially at-risk from water-borne disease. Cryptosporidium, for example, is a particular danger to people with weakened immune systems. 

Travellers who fall into this group should make a special effort to boil water and store it in a clean container. This is the surest way to avoid waterborne disease and may be the only reliable source of Cryptosporidium-free water. Bottled water certified under national and international water quality standards are generally considered nearly as safe as boiled water. 

Carmen also notes that when disinfecting water, iodine use over a long period of time is not recommended for pregnant women, those with a history of thyroid disease, and those with known hypersensitivity to iodine. Excess iodine can interfere with the functioning of the thyroid gland, and it is actually banned in Europe. Travellers intending to use iodine daily for all water consumed for more than 3-4 weeks should consult their physician beforehand, and not use it in excessive amounts when treating drinking water. 

When bottled water is not available, such as on remote safaris or treks, make sure to boil water or use chlorine tablets which can purify the local water. 

You could also try handy water filters like those made by LifeStraw which allow you to drink directly from water sources in the wild or devices like the SteriPEN which use UV light to kill 99.9% of waterborne microorganisms. 

The below, which was prepared by Carmen Grau, our medical expert, details the types of water purification and their pros and cons. This will help you suit your method of water purification to your travel plans. 

There are five principal ways to get drinking water: by means of pads, filters, Purifier ultraviolet light, boiling and desalination. 


Boiled 

The oldest system, more useful for an emergency than for continuous use. 

Advantages: effective against all types of microorganisms provided that the boiling lasts 10 minutes. It does not add chemical products. 

Disadvantages: slow, you have to wait for it to boil enough time and then cool down, It requires metal container. Requires fuel, heavy and expensive (usually butane/propane gas).


Tablets 

A good solution for those who drink water only sporadically. 

Advantages: very light, economical (10 to 25 € per 100 tablets) and easy to use (1 tablet per litre). 

Disadvantages: it entails waiting time (from 30 to 120 minutes), those of chlorine add strong flavour. You are ingesting chemical products. 


Filters 

They are small devices of mechanical type with lever of pumping, apt for clear waters with microorganisms of bacterial type. 

Advantages: they do not add flavor to the water, the most minimalists occupy little and they are quite light (from 210 to 350 grams). 

Disadvantages: expensive ($80-400), of fatiguing use (capacity of pumping 0,5 litres per minute). The ceramic, fibreglass, carbon or metal filter is usually clogged before the theoretical longevity estimated by the manufacturers, often by suspended mineral and vegetable particles. 


UV Light

This is a great marker of sunlight, which includes an ultraviolet light lamp. It is a fairly new system and highly recommended. 

Advantages: effective against all types of microorganisms, very safe, almost instantaneous (45 seconds), it does not contain harmful chemicals and allows you to enjoy the natural flavor of water. Small and very light, from 80 to 100 grams. 

Disadvantages: expensive (from $150-$300), use batteries or rechargeable battery. 


Desalinaters 

It works by reverse osmosis and the smallest can be carried in a backpack to make sea water drinkable 

Advantages: purification of sea water to obtain water without taste or smell. 

Disadvantages: expensive, heavy, fatiguing, difficult to buy, little polyvalent. 

Make sure food is cooked properly and avoid raw cuisine Besides tap water, food is another main cause of illness while travelling. Don’t eat food that is raw or looks under-cooked. Take a minute to make certain your food is cooked thoroughly. Choosing to eat food from street vendors may offer new and exciting flavours, but this often puts you at a greater risk for food-borne illnesses. Food poisoning is more common with street vendors due to the fact items may have been left refrigerated for several hours and are more apt to be exposed to flies. 

Common food items to be extra cautious about include meats, poultry and eggs, unpasteurised dairy products, and raw seafood like oysters. Also be mindful of areas that may be prone to long-duration power outages which may affect refrigeration. When dining on cruise ships or in hotels, stick with ordering off a menu as opposed to lining up for the buffet, as your risk for consuming contaminated food is far greater at buffets due to more human contact with serving utensils. 


Avoid alcohol

It’s important to stay hydrated during your travels since it helps keep your immune system and overall health running smoothly. Consuming alcohol not only leads to dehydration, but it can also lead to various side effects such as making unwise decisions and unpleasant hangovers when consuming too much. Additionally, you open yourself up to possible drink spiking. Choosing to drink alcohol may also void travel insurance claims if it is deemed to have caused or facilitated an event or situation which you are trying to claim. 



Protect against insects and get recommended vaccinations 

Illnesses from insects are common throughout many parts of the world. Diseases and infections such as malaria, West Nile virus, and yellow fever can all be transmitted by mosquitoes. Make sure to pack insect repellent containing an adequate percentage of DEET to deter biting insects. 

Our medical expert notes that you have three options to ensure you are properly vaccinated: 

Firstly, try consulting with your international vaccination centre in the country to intend on visiting. 

Secondly, you can receive vaccinations for many common travel diseases by visiting your local travel clinic before your holiday. Travel clinics may be better informed than your normal doctor when it comes to knowing what the risks are for certain regions along with which immunisations are required. 

Finally, you’re able to visit your general practitioner who will be able to advise you and may be able to assist with you getting the right vaccinations. 

This is important, because for many countries, it is often a requirement you receive the appropriate shots before you are granted entry. 

Further protect yourself by wearing long pants and shirts with sleeves during hikes through areas with a higher density of mosquitoes and make use of mosquito nets when they are offered. Give yourself a quick spot check after wilderness walks for insects like ticks which can also spread illnesses such as Lyme disease. 

In addition to insects, avoid close contact with both wild animals and livestock that may spread disease. Zoonotic diseases, or those which are spread from animals to humans, can all be picked up from animals including dogs, birds, bats, monkeys, and even camels. It is wise to simply look and not touch. Familiarise yourself with venomous species that may be present in your chosen travel destination as well.


Get adequate sleep and maintain fitness 

It is important to get enough sleep during your travels as excited as you may be to experience as much as you can. Getting adequate sleep is essential for keeping our immune system functioning at its best. Getting enough sleep should be a priority before your trip even begins, making sure to get a good 8 hours in the night before you set off. 

Jet lag can be avoided by splitting your trip up with stopovers, avoiding sleeping pills and caffeine, and choosing flights that don’t arrive at night. Keep in mind it usually takes a full day or two to recover from passing through different time zones. Don’t overload your itinerary too much in the beginning. 

Take advantage of your hotel’s gym if one is offered, as just a short fitness routine each day will help give you energy to tackle attractions. Staying on top of your fitness will not only fight off extra kilos, it can also help boost your immune system to fight off illnesses. Even if you aren’t fond of the gym, you can stay fit while travelling by simply doing things like choosing to walk around a city rather than taking taxis and by engaging in active activities. 

It is wise to also give yourself a few days off from work to recover from your holiday. You may have made it through your trip without illness only to put yourself at risk at home by rushing right back into things too quickly. 



Avoid swimming in unsanitary waters 

A range of gastrointestinal illnesses and infections can be picked up by swimming in unsanitary waters. Avoid swimming in rivers and lakes after heavy rainfall or ones that might receive runoff from nearby farms. Hot, shallow, and poorly circulating water is the worst when it comes to potentially containing harmful bacteria. Even waters in developed nations can harbour things like brain-eating amoebas, which prefer the same warm waters that attract holiday-makers. 

Even spending time at water parks and pools can lead to gastrointestinal problems due to faecal bacteria being present. Don’t count on chlorine to make the water safe. Instead, avoid dunking your head under water and cover up any cuts you may have.



Remember to pack your prescriptions and OTC medications 

Always pack more than you’ll need for any prescription medicines which you are dependent upon. Travel disruptions due to things like unforeseen events or natural disasters may mean you don’t return back home when you were scheduled to. Simply bringing along written prescriptions may not be adequate as they may not be accepted in your travel destination or they may not be available. One should also research whether more uncommon medications are allowed in the country you are travelling to, something travel clinics should be able to provide information about. 

Pack a first aid kit to treat small scrapes and cuts that may otherwise lead to infection and throw in some common OTC travel medicine. Should you get sick while travelling, at least you may be able to ease minor aches and pains with things like cold and flu medicine, ibuprofen (e.g. Nurofen or Panadol) and loperamide hydrochloride (e.g. Imodium). 

Remember to pack motion sickness tablets for cruise travel as well as extra contact lenses or a spare pair of glasses. You may also want to pack saline solution to disinfect contact lenses as it can often be difficult to find in certain areas.

We hope that these detailed holiday hints help you to make your next adventure the best one ever!

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