Travel Health Part 1: Beginning to Prepare

Even if your general health is good, I still recommend taking some time to anticipate health issues that could come up on your trip, and preparing for them.

I am not a doctor – you should discuss anything I suggest with your own physician, and seek his/her advice on these suggestions. 

On this page, I’ll talk about the following:

  • What if you need medical care while traveling? How do you prepare for that?
  • Do you need vaccinations? Some countries require that all visitors receive certain vaccines before arrival.
  • What prescriptions do you need to fill before traveling?
  • Will your destination possibly have air quality issues?
  • Do you want to take pain remedies?
  • Do you need to be concerned with overheating and dehydration?
  • Have you anticipated your skin’s needs?
  • Do you need to be concerned about insect-borne diseases?
  • What to pack – a checklist that will guide you in packing items discussed on this page

What if You Need Medical Care While Traveling?

Even if your general health is good, unexpected things can happen.

  • You could be involved in a car accident.
  • You could become ill with an unexpected disease.
  • A medical condition you didn’t realize you had could become a crisis.

If you need such medical care, how would you pay for it?

  • Ask your medical insurance provider what kind of coverage you will have while traveling, and ask how to use it if needed.
  • Will your insurance provide emergency medical evacuation if you require it? If not, you may want to consider purchasing a travel insurance policy for your trip.

Do You Need Vaccinations?

If you’re traveling internationally, your destination country may require you to have certain vaccinations before you arrive.

For my trip to Senegal, I was required to get vaccinated for yellow fever. Because this is a mandatory vaccination required of all international visitors, my doctor gave me a “proof of vaccination” card to keep with my passport, which I could show to immigration officials upon arrival.

You should arrange these as early as possible before your trip, to give your body to adjust to the vaccination and build up your immunity.  Ideally, it’s a good idea to get vaccinated at least 1-2 months before you travel. Be aware that vaccines can have adverse side effects.  Before receiving a vaccine, check what its side effects might be so you can watch for them in your own body.

I check the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s web site before I go to a country I haven’t been to before, to determine vaccination requirements. Another option is to visit the web site of the country you will be visiting, or call that country’s embassy.

Your primary care physician may be able to refer you to a “travel clinic” that provides travel health counseling on how to stay healthy, writes prescriptions for medications you may need for your trip such as anti-malarial drugs, and administers the vaccinations you need.

What Prescriptions do You Need to Fill Before Traveling?

Before leaving home, check the quantity you have on hand for the prescriptions you take regularly. Make sure you’ll have enough to last through your travels. Plan ahead so that you can arrange refills if needed with your doctor, and work with your insurance carrier to avoid issue.

This should include items you take every day, such as allergy medications, blood pressure, birth control pills, etc. It should also include items you don’t use very often, but really need at times, such as migraine medication.

Some of your prescriptions may be controlled substances in the country you are traveling to.  Take along proof that you have them in your possession legally: either the original bottle provided by your pharmacist, or a printed copy of the prescription from your doctor, or both.

Place your prescriptions in your carry-on luggage, not in your checked luggage. Sometimes your checked bags don’t arrive with you. One of my friends once waited 5 days for her bags to arrive. It could be a disaster to be without your prescription medications that long!

Will Your Destination Possibly Have Air Quality Issues?

If you have a history of asthma or other breathing issues, you may want to research air quality of your destination.  You might want to consider packing a mask, medications, an inhaler, or other items recommended by your doctor.

Downtown Cairo, Seen from The Citadel
This photo shows downtown Cairo, as seen from The Citadel.

Consider this photo of what downtown Cairo, Egypt looks like on a summer day.  I have also seen air quality this bad in certain large cities in the United States.  

Research the weather for your destination. For example, whenever I go to Egypt, I take a mask because sometimes sandstorms blow in from the Sahara desert. I have been in two different sandstorms in Egypt, so I have learned to pack a mask when I go. They only last about 2 days, but I appreciate the mask for those 2 days!

Some countries will also have issues with indoor air quality, due to people smoking cigarettes.

Do You Need to Pack Pain Remedies?

What types of things do you take pain remedies for while home? Headaches? Sore muscles? Menstrual cramps? Minor injuries?  Other issues? Pack your favorite items for pain relief, because you can’t be certain of finding the products in stores at your destination.

You might also want to take some items that help with pain relief, but aren’t drugs. For example, I find an eye shade or a cool, moist washcloth laid over my forehead and eyes to be helpful with migraines.

I don’t recommend taking magnetic wraps to ease muscle pain because, jumbling around in your luggage, they could wreak havoc with your credit cards, camera memory cards, etc.

Overheating and Dehydration

Will you be traveling to a destination with hot weather? Before you leave home, learn the symptoms of overheating and dehydration so you can recognize when you’re at risk.  Even if the weather isn’t excessively hot, you can become dehydrated if you don’t drink enough water.

Sahara Desert in Egypt
This is the Sahara desert in Egypt, near the pyramids.

Drink water at least once per hour while sightseeing or working outdoors in hot weather. Make sure your diet contains electrolytes such as salt and potassium to avoid muscle weakness.

If you’re thirsty, your heartbeat is elevated, your muscles feel weak, or you’re dizzy, those can be symptoms of dehydration.  Drink water, and consume electrolytes as soon as possible.

Heatstroke can be a very dangerous medical condition, and should be treated as an emergency. If it strikes, get to a cool place as soon as possible, place ice packs or cold water bottles in the armpits and groin, rub cool water onto the skin, and fan yourself. Symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, hallucinations, seizures, and rapid heartbeat.  Seek qualified medical care, if possible.

Skin Care

Your skin is your first line of defense against many illnesses. Don’t neglect its needs when packing for your travels!

Your skin will need extra care to avoid dryness when you travel.  The dry air of hotels, airplanes, airports, and air conditioned or heated interiors can dehydrate your skin. This can lead to chapped lips or cracks, which can allow germs to enter the body.

Whenever I arrive at a new destination, I try to take a shower or bath immediately to rehydrate my skin. I allow plenty of time to soak.

If you use moisturizing lotion at home, pack some of your favorite brand for your trip.

I find that lip balm is essential to take with me on airplanes and tour buses.  I also slather my lips with it at bedtime.

Sunscreen is always a good idea if you are likely to spend time outdoors either working, participating in sports, or sightseeing. I like to take the kind that’s in the form of individually packaged towelettes, to avoid the risk of a bottle coming open in my luggage and staining all my clothes.

Insect-Borne Diseases

Even if you don’t plan to be in an area with mosquitoes, ticks, or other insects that can carry diseases, opportunities might arise to do a special outdoor activity that takes you out into nature.

Some destinations carry a high risk of certain diseases carried by insects. For example, for my trip to Senegal I got vaccinated for yellow fever, and obtained a prescription for anti-malarial drugs. Other destinations may pose a lower risk, but you still may want to take precautions.

There are several approaches you can take to repel insects, including:

  • Commercial insect repellent containing Deet. I like to buy individually packaged towelettes to avoid the risk of liquid leaking into the contents of my luggage. When leaving the hotel, I prefer to tuck a towelette in my purse rather than a whole can of repellent.
  • Insect repellent clothing which has been treated with permethrin
  • Spray bottle of permethrin that you can use to treat the clothes you already own
  • Eating foods or taking supplements rich in Vitamin B (especially Niacin) to adjust your body chemistry to be unappetizing to insects

If you get bitten despite your precautions, you may find it helpful to have over-the-counter antihistamines with you to ease the itching. These are available in pill form and cream form.  I like to use Zyrtec pills for this, but check with your doctor for recommendations for your personal health situation.

If you prefer to avoid pharmaceutical products, or if you forget to pack them, try applying the inside of a banana peel to the insect bite to relieve the itching. It contains a substance called polysaccharide that can ease the symptoms.

Eye Care

The dry air in hotel rooms, airports, airplanes, and air-conditioned rooms can irritate the eyes.  Also, if you travel to a place that can have sandstorms such as Egypt, you may need to protect your eyes from wind-borne grit.

Saline eyedrops can ease discomfort due to dryness.

If you wear contact lenses, take a pair of prescription glasses to wear on the airplane and any time you’re outdoors in windy weather. Also, be sure to check the quantity of solution in your cleaning and soaking solutions to ensure there will be enough for your trip, and don’t forget to pack a case.

If possible, take a spare pair of prescription glasses and contact lenses, in case your primary pair is lost, stolen, or broken.

Sunglasses can be valuable if outdoors for long periods.

Oral Care

Shop the “trial size” section of your drugstore to look for toothbrushes that fold in half and small tubes of toothpaste.

When brushing your teeth in a destination whose tap water quality is questionable, use bottled water to rinse your mouth instead of tap water.

If you have periodic issues with mouth sores, you may want to take ointment to numb the pain.

Take moisturizing lip balm along. Lips can become painfully chapped in dry air of airplanes, hotels, and airports. Also, lips can sunburn, so take a lip balm that doubles as a sunscreen for time you’ll be outdoors.

What to Pack

  • Medical Care
    • Health insurance card
    • Travel insurance policy
    • Instructions on how to use your coverage if a medical situation arises
    • List of the best health care providers and hospitals in the city where you’ll be traveling
    • How to contact your country’s local embassy while abroad
  • Medications
    • Prescriptions that you use daily
    • Items you don’t need very often, but really want to have available when needed
    • The original container from the pharmacy with the prescription label
    • A written prescription from your doctor that you can present to a pharmacy if needed
  • Air Quality Supplies
    • Medications recommended by your doctor for respiratory health (for asthma, bronchitis, etc.)
    • A mask to prevent breathing passages from particles in the air
  • Pain Remedies
    • Relief for migraines, menstrual cramps, and injuries
    • Balm for sore muscles or soothing foot lotion
  • Dehydration and Overheating
    • Packet of electrolytes you can add to water
    • Aerosol spray bottle of water
  • Skin Health
    • First aid items for cuts (bandages and antiseptic cream)
    • Lip balm
    • Moisturizer
    • Sunscreen and sunburn first aid cream
  • Insect Bites
    • Repellent towelettes with Deet
    • Insect-repellent clothing treated with permethrin
    • Antihistamine pills or cream/ointment to ease itching
    • Anti-malarial drug prescribed by doctor
  • Eye Care
    • Saline solution for dry eyes
    • Spare pair of contact lenses or glasses
    • Contact lens case and solutions
    • Sunglasses to wear when outdoors in bright sunlight
  • Oral Care
    • Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, toothpicks
    • Lip balm with sunscreen