12 Tips for Staying Healthy During International Travel
For the past 30 years, we have been leading international medical and educational trips abroad. Our experience shows us that even just a little time spent on planning and gaining knowledge on how to stay healthy and safe abroad could make a huge difference in the comfort and enjoyment of your travels.
Our MedTreks team would like to share a few of our pointers here as food for thought:
Health During Airplane Travel
Spending multiple hours or days between taxis, airports, planes, buses, and hotels can be incredibly taxing on the emotional, physical and mental health of any individual, no matter how experienced they are in foreign travel!
Here are some tips for staying comfortable & healthy during your travel days:
- Plan to be comfortable: know that you will be spending long hours in one location, plan to wear comfortable clothing. Wear comfortable shoes- instead of picking your stylish shoes, pick ones that are practical and comfortable, in case you get caught outside in the rain waiting for your plane or have to run to catch your next flight. Pack layers and even an extra set of clothes in your carry-on. A warm shawl can be useful as a blanket or a pillow. Compression stockings can be really helpful on long flights to help with circulation and limit the amount of lower extremity swelling as well as the risk for blood clots. Eye masks, neck pillow, and earplugs are life-saving, especially on red-eye flights.
- First Aid and Personal Medications: always take your personal medications on the flight with you in case your luggage gets lost. It is helpful to have the original bottles of the medications but if this gets too bulky, then make sure to keep a signed letter from your primary care doctor stating that these medications have been prescribed to you. A tiny “quick kit” can be really helpful with a few bandaids, ibuprofen or Tylenol, Benadryl, gloves, etc.
- Snacks, Hydration & Movement: dehydration is common, especially on long plane rides. Bring your own personal water bottle and ask the flight crew to fill at the beginning or during the flight. Airplane food often leaves people feeling bloated, tired and unsatiated. Think about packing snacks that are healthy and nutrient-dense like trail mix, small packets of peanut butter, energy bars, turkey/beef jerky. Movement: try to get up and move every 2-3 hrs on the plane. This decreases the chance of getting a blood clot, it is also good for your vascular and nervous system to get up and move around.
Staying Safe on International Travel
- Arrival Plans: have arrival plans when you get to your destination. If you are getting picked up, make sure to have a backup plan. Uber is a great option and is in most large international cities. Make sure your Uber app is downloaded ahead of time and up to date in case the wifi connection at your destination is limited. That said, most airports have free Wifi and you can easily log online and use the Uber app before leaving the airport facility.
- Stay Organized: it is common to feel tired and overwhelmed when you arrive at your destination. Some airports are located mostly outside in warm and tropical climates, others may have very limited facilities including food, water, ATMs. Plan to have at least $100 in small bills of the local currency, just to get you through the first few days so you don’t have to spend your precious and limited energy finding the best exchange rate. Make sure to organize your belongings before you get off the plane and again at the baggage claim before stepping out of the airport. Be careful having people offer to “help” you with your bags as they will often request or demand money afterward. Best to have your driver, who you have arranged to pick you up, help you with your bags.
- Adopt a Sense of Street Smarts: being in a new location can be exciting but also overwhelming. Take extra time before leaving your hotel room to organize and gather your belongings.
- Be aware of your surroundings at all times, don’t leave valuables unattended
- Avoid wearing expensive clothing, watches, and jewelry- this can create undesired attention
- Avoid carrying large, heavy purses, cameras or backpacks- often helpful to purchase a bag from your destination and use that than the expensive backpack you just bought from R.E.I.
- Wear a money belt and have only a few small bills in your outside pocket
- 80% of crime occurs at night, try to avoid transportation at night
- Be cautious in crowded environments like sports games, train stations…take extra time to know where your belongings are at all times. Helpful to even keep a hand on your purse, or have a small fanny pack that you keep on the front of your body
- Motor Vehicle Safety: the riskiest activity you will likely participate in during your travels is getting into a car. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for foreign travelers. It is crucial to help mitigate the risk as much as possible. Here are our suggestions:
- Always wear a seatbelt when in any motor vehicle
- Avoid riding scooters or mopeds, although fun, they are definitely the most dangerous
- Avoid overcrowded or top-heavy buses.
- Avoid renting a car in a foreign country, especially if the road rules involve driving on the opposite side then you are used to
- Careful at stoplights and in parking lots, keep doors locked and windows rolled up
- Avoid driving at night if possible
- If you witness a motor vehicle accident, try to resist the temptation of responding to the accident. In many developing countries, it is difficult to navigate the Emergency Response System, if there even is one, and the circumstances are often times when crime rates, fights, and protests can be common. It is best to stay away from the crowds if possible.
- In the event you are in a car accident or have a flat tire, make sure you find your place in a safe location, preferably not on the side of the road or in the middle of traffic.
- Ride in only designated taxi’s or Uber’s that have seatbelts
- Try to have your hotel arrange transportation, can be more costly but usually safer
How to stay healthy while traveling or working abroad
- Know the Risk: first of all, it is important to realize that the risk for getting sick while traveling abroad is quite large- the CDC reports that between 30-70% of travelers get sick during international travel. Knowing the risks and necessary precautions can be helpful in planning a strategy for staying healthy for your travels
- Food Precautions: an old saying goes “boil it, cook it, peel it or don’t eat it”. We recommend following this rule for most of your travels, especially to the developing world. Even though most illnesses last between 3-7 days, those days can be incredibly uncomfortable with vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramping, weakness, fevers, and extreme fatigue…making travel miserable. Think of a long bus ride or spending extended periods of time without any good restroom options, it is awful having to run behind bushes and cars just because you were tempted by the delicious looking ceviche or wanted that creamy homemade icecream off the street cart. Food items that are often overlooked are things like sauces, dips, toppings, pastries with cream, ice in beverages, cut and peeled fruit, homemade juices or ice cream.
- Water Precautions: when traveling abroad it is best to be prepared and carry your own travel water disinfection system. We highly recommend using a UV source such as Steri-Pen or Chlorine dioxide tablets. Water filtration systems can be helpful, just careful to look out for the pore size of the filter and make sure it is small enough to filter out the microorganisms that are most harmful.
- Vector-Borne Illnesses: with cases of Zika, Dengue, and Malaria on the rise in certain regions of the world, it is important to do your research ahead of time to make sure you are taking the appropriate medication to prevent malaria as well as using the best mosquito bug repellent for the region you are traveling to. We typically recommend DEET (30% concentration) or Picaridin, in addition to wearing light, protective clothing that covers most of your body. Remember to use a bed net at night!
- Culture Shock: Although travel can be incredibly rewarding and life-changing, it can also be very stressful. Travel forces you to step away from your comfort zone. With a lack of normal daily routine, new environments, language barriers, and unexpected circumstances, travel can be demanding on your physical, mental and emotional well-being. Culture shock is an experience of being disoriented when witnessing an unfamiliar way of life: different language, customs, food, religion. There is a spectrum of how people experience culture shock, including fear, sadness, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, homesickness. Helpful Tips when Experiencing Culture Shock:
- Make sure you are getting plenty of rest throughout the day and enough sleep at night. Jet lag adds additional challenges to culture shock
- Make sure to stay hydrated especially in warmer climates where your body is not acclimatized.
- Bring plenty of snacks with you to keep you fueled and energized
- Bring something personal like a journal or book that you know will help keep you calm and centered during stressful times
- Keep in contact with loved ones- this could be family, friends, colleagues.
- Gentle stretching to help alleviate stress and physical activity can be very helpful
- Try to make connections with the local culture- talk to the local people, get to know their lifestyle and be curious about the differences in their life compared to yours.
- Resources: the best resource for tips on how to stay healthy abroad with specific suggestions to different destinations, is the Center for Disease Control
We hope this blog was helpful!
Cheers and Safe Journeys Everyone!
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