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How to avoid health disasters on vacation

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No one wants to think about getting sick when they're getting ready to travel, but nothing can ruin a vacation faster than an unexpected illness. While traveling may increase the risk of getting sick, there are steps you can take to help ensure a healthy trip. Whether you're about to embark on a tropical beach vacation or planning a backpacking trip overseas, read on for expert tips on how to keep yourself and your family safe.

Plan ahead

Warodom Nimmanahaeminda

Learning about your destination is the first step to ensuring healthy travel. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a database that allows you to search health risks related to the country you will be visiting. The CDC and World Health Organization also post country-specific travel notices and warnings on their websites, which are regularly updated. Be aware of any travel alerts before you leave to avoid unwelcome surprises upon arrival.

See a doctor before you go

Javier Sánchez Mingorance

Depending on where you're traveling, you may need certain vaccinations that you would not normally need at home to protect against illnesses like yellow fever or typhoid. While general practitioners can be a good resource, you may want to consider seeing a travel medicine specialist to help determine which vaccines you need, medications to pack, and any other precautions you may want to take.

"One of the things that has changed in recent years is the advent of doctors and nurses who specialize in travel medicine," Dr. David Shlim, the recent past president of the International Society of Travel Medicine, told CBS News. "So because that exists, a lot of people in general practice just don't keep up with travel medicine anymore." Ask your doctor if he or she is equipped to help, or get a referral to a travel medicine expert. Your appointment should ideally be four to six weeks before your departure.

Pack smart

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Depending on your destination, you may need to take special precautions, but generally, there are some items you should always pack while traveling. A travel health kit should contain the prescription medicines you usually take, plus copies of these prescriptions; an EpiPen if you have allergies; medicines to prevent malaria, if needed at your destination; and an antibiotic prescribed by your doctor to self-treat traveler's diarrhea.

Over-the-counter treatments, including antidiarrheal medication, decongestant, medicine for pain or fever, antifungal and antibacterial ointments or creams, and anti-motion sickness medication, can be helpful.

Insect repellent and sunscreen should also be packed, especially when heading to a tropical destination.

Consider evacuation insurance

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While travel insurance is an option, Shlim recommends at least purchasing medical evacuation insurance as a precaution. This will cover the cost of evacuation in case of a medical emergency from a resource-poor area to a hospital equipped to provide adequate treatment, a service that can cost over $100,000 out of pocket. "Europeans don't leave home without it," Shlim said, "but many Americans don't even think about it."

Most plans also include 24-hour medical advice over the phone and can direct you to the best local health care in non-emergency situations.

Know if you’re an at-risk traveler

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People who were born in a foreign country and are returning home to visit after living elsewhere for some time, may need to take extra precautions. "The group of travelers that are actually at a little greater of risk for infectious diseases is what we refer to as people who are visiting friends or relatives," he said. "A lot of times they feel like they're immune, but having been away for a long time, they may want to be vaccinated."

Pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are also at a higher risk for illness or complications while traveling and should speak with their doctors before departing.

Avoid blood clots while flying

Gilles Paire

Sitting for a prolonged period of time on an airplane can increase the risk of blood clots or deep vein thrombosis. Getting up and walking around during long flights when the seat belt light is not on can help reduce the risk. Flexing your feet up and down to improve circulation in the calves can also help, Shlim said. People who have had blood clots in the past are at a higher risk and should talk to a doctor before flying.

Eat and drink wisely

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In developing countries, drink only bottled or purified water to avoid viruses, bacteria, and parasites that can cause stomach problems like diarrhea. Eat only food that is fully cooked and avoid unwashed or unpeeled raw fruits and vegetables.

However, these precautions may still not protect you from getting sick, as kitchen hygiene plays a role in many cases of food poisoning, Shlim pointed out. "It's the combination of chopping meat and vegetables on the same surface, food handlers not washing their hands after going to the bathroom, screens not being present to exclude flies, not having enough electricity or refrigerator space to store foods at a safe temperature," he said.

Since these risks are out of the traveler's control, Shlim strongly recommends getting an antibiotic from a travel medicine doctor before leaving for your trip so you can self-treat diarrhea while you're away.

What to do if you get sick

Theepatheep Kawinpathawee

The CDC recommends seeing a doctor immediately if you develop any of the following symptoms: diarrhea accompanied by a fever above 102 degrees, bloody diarrhea, or a fever or flu-like illness while visiting a malaria-risk country. Also see a doctor if you have been bitten or scratched by an animal, have been in a car accident, or have been sexually assaulted.

If you do not have medical evacuation insurance, you can contact the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate for 24/7 assistance.

Be mindful after the trip

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If you are not feeling well after returning home, see a doctor and be sure to mention that you have recently traveled. "Unless you tell your doctor you've traveled, they won't ask," Shlim said. "So if you tell them you've had a fever for a couple of days, they may think it's the flu. But if you tell them then that you have a fever and traveled to Papua New Guinea six months ago, that would change their reaction."

Finally, if you visited a malaria-risk country, continue taking your antimalaria drugs until you finish the dosage, even if you have to continue taking them when you're back home. If you become ill with a fever or flu-like symptoms up to a year after you return home from a malaria-risk area, see a doctor immediately and mention your travel history.