11 Tips for Staying Healthy Abroad

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11 Tips for Staying Healthy Abroad

Ann McCollumby Guest Contributor Ann McCollum

World traveler Ann McCollum specializes in experiential, wilderness, and international travel programs in schools, camps, and youth development programs.

Her goal is to facilitate the achievement of excellence in experiential education programs by assisting programs to be grounded in solid management of risk. Her cooperative effort includes program assessment, evaluation, and community education.

Ann received her M.Ed. from the University of Virginia. She is a Trained Facilitator, Alpine Tower and Team Development Course (high and low ropes courses), including special needs facilitation, a NOLS Graduate, National Outdoor Leadership School Instructors Course and Alaska Mountaineering Course, a Wilderness First Responder (WFR), Backcountry Leader, and well-regarded International Travel Guide. Learn more about Ann here.


When traveling abroad, one of the biggest issues one considers is getting sick or injured, whether as a result of your actual travel activities or simply a health issue can arise in the normal course of life. The latter might include a “routine” slip and fall or even a heart attack. The range of risk – depending on the remoteness of your trip – spans from common TD (travelers diarrhea), to something more serious; the possibility of rabies from a dog bite or an insect-borne disease like malaria. Below is a list of considerations when planning healthy travel.


1.Travel Clinic: Early in your planning, visit your local travel clinic, particularly if you travel to one location on a regular basis. A nurse trained in international travel issues will gather specifics about your travel itinerary and will be able to develop a written report outlining specific regional issues and recommended immunizations. This medical professional is good resource for providing effective health practices for your self-care and can usually give you necessary immunizations and medicines on the spot. To find a travel clinic in your area, search “travel clinic” on the web or look in your local phone book. (Searching “travel nurse” will likely result in finding jobs for nurses who are willing to travel to various places to do their work – not what you are seeking!)


2.Personal medical history and documents: Write down your pertinent personal medical history and carry multiple (electronic and paper) copies. Information in your record should include: blood type, allergies, regular prescription medications, chronic issues, passport number, and emergency contact information. And be sure to wear your medical alert bracelets or necklaces.


3.Travel documents: Carry at least one copy of all your travel documents (including your medical history) and leave at least one set at home. If you carry electronic copies of your documents on a thumb drive, not only is it a great small back-up, you might also be able to use the thumb drive right at he hospital or clinic to access your information. Electronic information on your phone can be emailed directly from your phone, which may come in handy.


4.Translation: Consider buying or downloading a language translation book for medicalAt the very least, before you go, translate the key medical terms and phrases related to your condition and associated effects.  For example, if you have diabetes, it would be helpful to have common terms for your type of diabetes and its symptoms translated, so that you can effectively communicate your needs to the doctor or nurse. Also translate names of medications you are on, if needed.  Many medications are the same names in other countries, many are not, depending on where they are manufactured.


5.Prescription (RX) medications: Carry all RX meds in your carry-on bags (in case your checked bags get lost) and in its originalIt is often recommended that travelers carry paperwork from their doctor documenting their prescriptions.  If you carry syringes (e.g. for diabetes), it would be important to have such documentation.


AnnMcCollumTravel6.First aid kit: It’s important and easy to put together (or buy) a small packable kit with a few essentials. (Adventure Medical Kits offers a “Smart Travel Kit” for about $50.) Besides standard kit items such as wound management materials (Bandaids, sterile gauze, antiseptic wipes, etc.) and anti-diarrheal, pain, cough, and cold medications, consider items which would address your specific personal health and comfort as well as issues specific to your destination. Such items might include preferred brands of over-the-counter medications, the ability to address specific feminine health issues, water purification tablets, blister dressings, and medications for allergic reactions, bug bites, and motion sickness. If you are an asthmatic, it is always a good idea to carry an extra inhaler. For traveling in developing countries, carrying a few syringes may be a good idea, attempting to avoid the risk of unclean syringes (should you need them for your care) in certain areas. Regardless of the depth of your kit, a must-have item would be hand sanitizer for those pesky germs that love to live on all surfaces – hand washing and personal hygiene are your best defense against travel illness.


7.Local hospital: Identify the best hospital in the area to which you are traveling should you need to go in anDo they speak English? Is there a hospital that specifically treats Americans or westerners? If you would need a specialty (lupus, cancer survivor, pregnancy, diabetes), make sure they can address it.  Consider identifying a hospital that is private rather than public. Generally, a private hospital might be less crowded and have more reliable and current equipment, though they can also be more expensive.


8.Insurance: Check to see what your current insurance will cover overseas and what it will not. Know how to contact your insurance representative from overseas and what they may require to pay your claim (e.g. pre-approval, documentation), if anything, should you need treatment. Carry a copy of your medical policy; usually a one-page copy of the policy certificate is sufficient, unless you also want to carry a copy of the entire policy to have access to the specifics of the coverage. Consider purchasing travel medical insurance and ensure that it covers your pre-existing medical issues and any specific activities in which you plan to participate. “Adventure” activities are not covered in many policies. For example, an injury sustained while riding a motorcycle or scooter is often not covered by travel insurance, not to mention zip-lines, rafting, or scuba, unless you have specified coverage for such activities.


9.Evacuation insurance: Consider evacuation insurance should you think you may want to come back to the US for certain treatment such as surgery, to a specific hospital, or if you might need a helicopter evacuation. Your travel insurance may provide evacuation insurance, but it may be an extra addition.


10.Embassy registration: It’s not a bad idea to register your travel with STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program), so your embassy knows you are there in case of a regional crisisFor US Citizens: http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/registration/registration_4789.html


11.Resources: Excellent resources for international travel health include:

    1. a.CDC (www.cdc.gov)
    2. b.World Health Organization (www.who.int/en/)
    3. c.US State Department (www.us.state.gov)
    4. d.British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.fco.gov.uk/en)
    5. e.International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT, www.iamat.org). One can become a member of IAMAT for free and have access to all kinds of helpful information. The IAMAT website offers an excellent downloadable pdf Guide to Healthy Travel for $15.
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