Traveling outside of your home country can be a thrilling and enriching experience…until you get sick. Getting sick is no fun, and getting sick far from home can be particularly challenging (and stressful).
As a frequent business and personal traveler, with experience in 40+ countries, I’ve had my fair share of travel maladies. In this time, I’ve learned that there are some things that you can do to prevent food poisoning or a case of Montezuma’s Revenge. All it takes is a little planning both before and during your trip. Medical advice is always best received from a qualified professional, so consider these tips general recommendations to keep you healthy and active during your trip!
Vaccinations: Before leaving your country, it’s always a good idea to check with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention travel website. Read the article on the country you plan to visit. This will help you to understand what vaccinations are recommended or necessary prior to visit.
Some vaccinations can cause discomfort in some people – for example, a Tetanus shot can make your arm a little sore for a day or two. That said, the discomfort associated with a vaccination is much less of a challenge than the actual disease itself; you don’t want to get tetanus – let alone in a foreign country that may not have medical care at the level to which you’re accustomed.
Malaria pills are a constant debate for some of my heavy travel friends. I can tell you that I typically take the pills if I’m traveling to a location outside of a major city. A good travel clinic is your best source of advice (I recommend Capitol Travel Medicine in Arlington for those in the D.C. area). If that’s not possible, then check with your general practitioner.
Medications: Always carry-on whatever medicine you will need. This ensures they’re always with you in the event your checked luggage ends up somewhere else. It’s also recommended that you carry any prescription medicine in the original bottle in case you’re stopped by customs. Custom regulations are highly complex and are often subject to change. Some medications that require a doctor’s visit and a prescription in the U.S. may be available over the counter (OTC) overseas, while other medicines are simply not available or prohibitively expensive (or prohibited altogether).
For more common medications, a helpful pharmacist can assist you in finding the local equivalent so you don’t have to bring the entire medicine cabinet. I once approached an Italian pharmacist with the translation for “milk pills stomach” and received the Italian version of Lactaid.
It was worth every ounce of cheese I ate during that trip.
Then there was the time I hurt my back climbing through a very small tomb in Saqqara (Egypt). I was able to request medication from a Cairo pharmacist, without which I may still be on the floor of my hotel room.
There are two universal medications that you should never leave home without (and I mean never):
Pepto Bismol. It doesn’t take up much space and you’re going to be glad you have it when you need it (which you will). I recommend the chewable tablets since it isn’t a pink liquid that can explode inside your bags.
Immodium. There are local equivalents available, but when you’re dealing with stomach issues, the last thing you want to do is go shopping for medicine to deal with it. If you’re just finishing up a traditional meal of bush meat and root vegetables with your host in the Limpopo Province in South Africa, you’ll be glad you have something to help settle the system a few hours later.
Water: Bottled water is your best friend. Ask to open the bottle yourself. I once checked into a hostel in Morocco and was surprised to see a big two liter bottle of water there on the night stand. Thankfully, my friend noticed that the bottle was already opened.
There’s a big difference between bottled water and water that just happens to be in a bottle. Remember, if you’re in a place of the world where water is unsafe, then make sure you also use bottled water to brush your teeth, don’t open your mouth in the shower, don’t order ice, etc.
Food: Part of being an international traveler is trying new things and this includes food. Don’t eat pizza at the hotel every day. Get out and try some new local foods! Anything cooked at a high temperature for a prolonged period of time is a safe choice. Food that is served frequently in a restaurant is usually good bet. The most popular dishes are generally popular for a reason. Would I eat haggis in Scotland? Yes, I would (and did). Would I eat haggis in Texas – definitely not.
Raw or uncooked foods, like salad, are best to be avoided unless you have a strong stomach or have acclimated to the new environment. If you were to order a salad nicoise in Paris, you’re fine. If you order salad nicoise in Niger then you might want to reconsider. Think about how long it took the tuna to get to your restaurant and what kind of a journey it had. Additionally, if the greens are washed in water that’s unsafe to drink then you shouldn’t be eating that salad.
One of the biggest amateur salad mistakes comes from travelers who eat the airplane salad on their return flight. Do you think Lufthansa flies food from Munich to Mumbai for your return flight? (Hint – they don’t.) Don’t eat the salad. Enjoy one of their great pretzel rolls instead.
Sleep: Our lives and our bodies are regulated by sleep. A good rule of thumb is that it takes about one day to adjust to every hour of time difference when you travel. Some individuals make the change easier than others. Where possible, I recommend getting on the new time zone as soon as possible. There are some who recommend a short nap when you first arrive, but I tend not to take that route. I try to sleep on the plane and then stay up until the sun goes down.
My trouble isn’t usually in falling asleep, but in staying asleep. I’ve never taken prescription sleep aids (too afraid of something habit forming) but I’ve used an OTC herbal pill called Sleep MD (widely available) for years. It’s a mix of melatonin, valerian root, and other ingredients that focus on keeping you asleep. I tend to need it only for a night or two until I’ve adjusted to the new schedule.
You’ll find that eating according to the schedule for your new time zone also helps regulate your sleep. You don’t want to wake up at 3am with intense hunger unable to do anything about it.
Some of the most amazing experiences of my life have been when I’m on travel. Some of the best food I’ve eaten, some of the most wonderful people I’ve met, and some of the best photos I’ve taken – have all been on travel. The last thing you want to be dealing with on your trip is your health. A little planning on your part can make for a much more enjoyable experience.
Tom is a business development executive with a large aerospace firm based in the U.S.