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How to Stay Healthy When Traveling Abroad

Before going on that long-awaited vacation, our health correspondent, Dr. Emily Senay, talks about some things that travelers should do to stay healthy before they leave, particularly if they are traveling abroad.

What are some things that we should do to reduce the chances of getting sick while on vacation?

Just like you're going to make sure that your car is tuned-up and in good shape before you leave on a trip, it's a good idea to schedule your own personal tune-up and see your doctor and dentist before you leave for vacation. If you have a chronic illness, tell your doctor where you are going and plan ahead what you should do if you get sick. If you have an illness, like diabetes, bring extra supplies to take on vacation. Fill prescriptions for medication that you need for you and your family before you leave.

If you are travelling outside of the country, what precautions should you take?

It depends on where you're going. Traveling to highly developed regions, such as Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, is not generally of great concern to travelers from the US who are in normal good health.

The biggest precautions have to be taken when traveling to developing countries and remote regions of the world. According to a report from International SOS, a medical assistance company, half of all Americans who visit developing countries get sick within the first month of travel. They reported that malaria, hepatitis A and B, typhoid, and accidents were the most common problems. Fortunately, there are things you can do to protect yourself from these illnesses, such as getting immunizations, and there are other commonsense precautions that you can take to protect yourself.

How can you find out what immunizations you need?

One of the best places to check with to get up-to-date information is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In addition to getting immunized, you have some tips to offer on commonsense stuff people can do to protect themselves when traveling in developing countries. What are they?

A good rule for travelers to developing countries is

  • Boil it.
  • Cook it.
  • Peel it.
  • Or forget it.

Specifically, only drink bottled water (that includes for brushing your teeth). Avoid ice. Avoid salads and fresh thin-skinned fruits and raw foods. Avoid unpasteurized dairy products. Eat freshly cooked food and citrus fruit that you peel yourself.

What if you're just going to the Caribbean, Central America, or Mexico? Do you have to take the same precautions?

A common problem for those who travel to Central America and Mexico is an illness called travelers' diarrhea. Up to 40 to 50% of Americans travelling there get it. It's less of a problem in the Caribbean. Travelers should talk to their doctor about bringing an over-the-counter antidiarrhea medication or taking an antibiotic to combat severe case of travelers' diarrhea. Parents should look for signs of dehydration if their children get it. They should take Pedialyte with them or other products designed to prevent dehydration in children.

Health officials have also noticed an increase in an old virus called dengue fever that is transmitted by mosquitoes. It's important to take insect repellant with you. I recommend a bug spray with DEET concentrations greater than 25%.

What should travelers do if they get sick while they're on vacation?

If you are travelling overseas, ask the hotel staff for advice or the US embassy to help you find a doctor who speaks English. Prior to going abroad, consider becoming a member of an international organization called the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMA), which was started about 40 years ago. It is a nonprofit organization that has doctors and medical facilities around the world that will provide medical assistance to travelers. Membershi is free: All you have to do is to register with them. They don't have a hotline, but they will give you a list of doctors in the area where you are going to be traveling that you can call on.

They also send you information about the quality of sanitary conditions, water, food, and milk in countries around the world.

For information log on to or call 716-754-4883 or 519-836-0102.

How serious a problem are deaths from motor vehicle accidents for vacationers?

It's been estimated that about one-quarter of all fatalities and serious problems that travelers have outside of the country are from accidents in cars and mopeds. Reckless driving is not the only problem: Travelers outside of the country have to be careful of poor road conditions and driving in countries where there are not restrictions about wearing a seat belt or bicycle helmet.

If I have to go to the doctor when I'm away, will my insurance cover it?

It depends on your insurance coverage. No matter where you are traveling on vacation, even if you are travelling in the US, before you go away, find out what kind of insurance coverage you have. For example, if you are in a managed care plan, find out what the rules are about seeing a doctor outside of the plan. If you are traveling abroad, a smart thing to do is to take out international medical insurance through either your travel agent or a broker.
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