Healthy travel: good luck or good management?
Within one week I will know if I have contracted dengue fever. (I wrote this on a Malaysian island)
Despite knowledge, despite repellent, and despite being cautious, the dengue-carrying, daytime-biting mosquito has bitten me: in an area of Asia where an epidemic is rife.
So why is an article on healthy travelling starting on such a negative note? Merely to confirm what T.S. Elliot said ‘Between the idea and the reality falls the shadows.’ No matter how well prepared we are, travel can throw us a curved ball.
I do not expect to fall ill during the next week: in fact when travelling I never expect to have health or any other problems. A positive mental attitude is my first line of defence. This attitude, plus good luck, plus common sense has seen me travelling in some thirty-five countries with rarely any health concerns. Even in third world countries I seldom have an upset stomach or fast trips to toilets.
I can’t tell you any worst-ever tales as my ‘worst’ are very mild: a heavy cold in the Netherlands, a sore back after sleeping on bus from Cairo to Tel Aviv, a painful neck in London, and the very occasional loose bowel-motion.What are the basic ‘rules’ of happy, healthy travelling? They range from pre-travel checks and vaccinations through to health insurance and sensible precautions. Post-travel problems and check-ups are also part of travel-care and, most important of all, remember that travel self-care covers sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual areas.
The healthier and fitter you are before the journey starts the better. No matter how fit you are, pre-trip walking will benefit you. Whether climbing mountains, visiting cathedrals and art galleries, scuba diving or canoeing – you will need physical and mental strength.
People on coach trips around Europe have been amazed at the effort required to wake early each day, travel with strangers (some of whom will drive you crazy) and sightsee along the way. It sounds easy but most say it left them exhausted: the healthier you are the more you’ll enjoy your travels.
Visit your GP or other health professional to ensure you have your usual medications. Many travel books recommend photocopying the script for crossing borders – although I have never found this necessary. The local travellers’ health clinic will have up-to-date advice on vaccinations or prophylactics that are recommended for the area of the world you are visiting. Seek this information early so you can plan to have any injections early so they do not interfere with your flight.
Now is also the time to check your first aid kit. I think of this as a self-care kit and it contains everything I want for personal safety. Because it is for ‘self care’ it will be different for each of us. (See sidebar for some basic ideas)
Naturally the type of travel, destination and activities planned will determine your needs. For example, I take a basic travellers needle and syringe kit when I travel in places that have a high incidence of AIDS or a low standard of health care – I leave it at home if I am off to London, Paris or New York. If you are climbing mountains or canoeing the Amazon, your needs will be different.
As with all travel packing, be sensible – on a long journey even a straw weighs heavy says a Spanish proverb – and most items are available around the world. So what will you carry?
The first items in my self-care kit are anti-histamine tablets and cream. The relief they bring is wonderful and if you are not scratching the chances of infection is low. Common sense is a vital ingredient to pack also – unfortunately it is not common.
As I write this – on an island with very basic facilities and no health care – a young man arrived with sore eyes. He’d not consulted anyone and for the next three days couldn’t open his eyes. Despite advice to return to the mainland, he stayed, swallowed other people’s antibiotics, and bathed his eyes with cold tea and out-of-date eye drops. On the fourth day he left for medical attention. I hope no permanent damage resulted from such careless behaviour.
Another self-care health concern on islands is sunburn – even on cloudy days and especially when snorkelling. Remember to put sun block in your kit and put it on before going outside – also use an umbrella or wear clothes that will filter out harmful rays. Severe sunburn is not only dangerous to your health; it can also ruin your holidays while the burns heal.
Yesterday a young man drowned in a dangerous rip. No matter how experienced we are, always check local conditions whether swimming or climbing mountains; even in cities there are places to avoid. Locals know the dangers.
Air travel has its own particular concerns and deep vein thrombosis (DVT) has been on the long-distant travellers concern list for some time. Your medical advisor will have the latest information on this potential killer. When travelling the best advice I can give is to drink plenty of water – I carry my own bottle to ensure I have plenty – avoid alcohol carbonated drinks and coffee. Exercise as much as possible, before during and after the flight. In-flight magazines have advice on avoiding DVT. It is well to remember the same advice for when travelling by bus too.
Caring for ourselves physically is not always in our hands. Accidents are often out of our control and major events such as hijacking or other terrorist activity is not something we can plan against. I keep up to date with what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has to say about various destinations by registering with them for emailed updates. This means I can make informed decisions about going to, or leaving, a particular region.
However riding in a taxi as the driver counts his money, travelling in a speed-boat that’s moving too fast, or on a motorbike without a helmet, these are decisions about self-care that travellers have to make daily. The choice is ours.
Once – on fast-moving downhill-travelling bus in Laos – I decided that looking out the front window and worrying about the apparently dangerous driving was not going to make my trip safer and in the middle of the mountains I had no other transport choice. I used the young man in the seat behind me as a teacher to improve my language skills and keep my eyes off the crazy driver. The chickens and turkeys, old and young men and women and countless babies, and I, all arrived safely.
Finally, self-care on returning home needs to include a health check-up whether you have adverse symptoms or not: especially if you have been to a country with bilharzia, malaria or other such problems. However my major concern on returning home is always how to deal with a dose of post-travel-distress! For me this is usually cured by plans for more travel and writing about my last trip.
First aid/self care kit ideas
Antibiotics (if off the beaten track)
Water purifying tablets
Crepe bandage (hiking)
Plus anything else you need to provide good self-care. Take just enough for emergencies as most things can be bought worldwide.
Freshly cooked food is best.
Avoid food that has been siting on low heat.
Cook it, peel it or forget it is good advice for fruit.
Eat where locals are eating. They know where food is of good value and clean.
If in doubt about local water drink tea (etc) bottled water or other drinks
Drink copious fluids in hot climates and replace salt lost through sweating.
© Heather Campbell Hapeta 2009