In Ireland, I abruptly came down with a nasty case of bacterial pneumonia; my fever was so high that I was deliriously talking in my sleep and frightened two young girls in my dorm. The manager of the hostel took great care of me, feeding me medicated broth and applying cold presses to my forehead. I have no memory of her - I was so out of it - and unfortunately, she left for vacation after I recovered and I never got to thank her.
Travelling isn’t always glamorous. At the very least, you can arm yourself with health coverage in case you catch a fairly common bacteria like I did. Furthermore, us Westerners are hardly aware of diseases that are prevalent in countries across the planet. Ever heard of diphtheria? Yeah, I hadn’t either. With a bit of planning and forward-thinking, you can protect yourself from prevalent health hazards in your destination country. Here's how to get started.
Visit a travel clinic a few months before leaving to inquire about any vaccines you may need. Give yourself lots of time, as certain immunisations require several weeks and even months between shots. Yellow fever and Hepatitis A (commonly contracted through sexual intercourse, contaminated food and inconspicuously, ice cubes) are two of the most common immunisations required for travelling worldwide, and you might need to show proof upon your arrival to affected countries and upon your return home.
Malaria is still one of the world’s biggest killers and remains a global health crisis, though we’re fortunate to not worry about it in North America. If you’re travelling to affected countries - especially those in sub-Saharan Africa and SouthEast Asia- you might want to pack some Malarone tablets. It’s the most-tolerated treatment (with little side effects), although no antimalarial drug is 100% guaranteed. Use plenty of insect repellent, long sleeves and pants, and sleep in a mosquito net.
I heard that rabies is on the rise in certain parts of the world - predominantly India, SouthEast Asia and Africa - and kinda dismissed it as irrelevant. But with all those Facebook/Instagram reels of travellers rescuing stray dogs in foreign countries, it’s actually quite relevant.
Rabies scares the crap out of me, and not just because of Cujo (thanks, Stephen King), but because it is quite literally the world’s deadliest disease.
In humans, rabies is 99% fatal. If bitten (or even licked or scratched) by an infected animal, you must get your first shot within 24 hours and before symptoms appear, or you will most certainly die a horrendous death. Then several more shots will be required for you to be out of the woods. Sorry to be morbid. Keep in mind that, depending on where you are, your first and most urgent dose may be difficult to access.
If you’ll be visiting a country with a high rabies rate or if you’re planning to volunteer/work with animals, get your vaccines before leaving (if exposed, you’ll only need two boosters shots). Rabies can lay dormant for months, or even years, after exposure.
Medications that you typically use at home should be brought with you in small quantities. Don’t wait until you need them to seek them out and never assume you’ll be able to find them abroad. This includes contraceptives and prescriptions, but also painkillers, antihistamines, anti-diarrhea and anti-nausea (motion sickness) tablets. Visit a travel clinic to check which destination-specific medications you might need. I usually stash them in my First Aid kit, with the exception of routine pills (birth control, vitamins, etc.) that I keep in my toiletries bag.
A well-assembled First Aid kit will assist with the four most common travel ailments: gastro-intestinal illnesses, injuries/wounds, lung/respiratory infections and general malaise (hangovers and pain). Forget the bulky bottles; buy tiny artisanal sealable bags at The Dollar Store and pack a dozen or so of the following:
Ibuprofen and acetaminophen
Anti-diarrhea and anti-constipation tablets
Antiseptic spray/antibiotic ointment
Bandages (plasters) of different sizes for cuts and blisters
Flu/fever medication and lozenges
Water purification tablets
Sports strapping tape
Visit your doctor and dentist for any annual/bi-annual tests or exams before you leave. This will go a long way toward avoiding expensive problems (especially dental ones) down the line.
Protect yourself in case of an emergency and avoid a potentially desperate situation; you need access to affordable and reliable health care. Inquire about your employer’s possible travel health insurance, and purchase any extra insurance that isn’t covered. Bring paper and electronic proof of insurance with you at all times.
I hate to be macabre with you here, but make sure you have repatriation insurance (shipping your body back to your home country if you were to pass away). Gulp. It happens. A friend of my cousin once drove to Washington State to attend a rock concert, hit a moose with his car and died. He had health coverage at home in Canada, but hadn’t thought of purchasing repatriation insurance for travel (even for a 2-hour drive across the border). His parents were forced to REMORTGAGE THEIR HOME just to get their son’s body back to Canada. Insane.
If you’re travelling for short periods, it’s not the end of the world if you get off-track with your health routines. But maintaining your good habits while you’re traipsing around the globe will make an enormous difference in your physical, mental and emotional wellness. Do your best to keep your fundamentals in place.
Sounds stupid, but many of the things that apply at home apply on the road. Sleep is no exception. Although it’s more difficult to maintain a sleep routine while travelling (especially if sleeping in dorms), it’s totally possible. If it works for you at home, do your best to keep your sleep schedule going on the road. Learn to sleep with a mask and earplugs to minimise disturbances.
Nutritious food and water
If you have access to a kitchen in your hostel or AirBnB, go grocery shopping and prepare your own food (which is much less costly than eating out). I always start out with this intention and it often trickles away, so I roughly stick to a routine: I start my mornings off with a fun breakfast at a different café every morning, then pack a light lunch/snack for the day (nuts, baguette, cheese, apple). Then I try to prepare supper at the hostel in the evening. I usually eat the same thing a few suppers in a row in order to finish off the groceries (ex: When I buy everything to make burritos, I have enough for 2-3 suppers). Or do the opposite: prepare breakfast every morning at the hostel and eat out at a different spot every evening.
Some illnesses are food-borne, especially from unwashed produce - wash and peel/cut your own fruit and veggies. A common misconception is that you get sick from meat but this is rather rare, as bacteria in meat is almost always killed during cooking (unless it’s been sitting out for hours). The culprits are usually fruits/vegetables or food that is handled with unwashed hands or in unsanitary conditions (ex: salads, sushi, etc.). Keep away from vendors that handle food and money simultaneously.
You might want to buy bottled water in certain areas of the world; their water may not be adequately treated but even if it is, you could have an adverse reaction to ‘good’ microbes that you’re simply not used to. Carry a water bottle and water purification tablets with you if you’re sceptical about water quality.
Print out your allergies or dietary intolerances on little cards in different languages and show them to restaurant employees and food vendors. Avoid any emergencies by checking out allergytranslation.com or selectwisely.com.
Lastly, many illnesses could be lessened or avoided entirely by eating for nutrition. Eat plenty of real, good ol’ fashioned food (non-packaged stuff that could go bad after a while) like fresh fruit, veggies, nuts and grains. And then make what I call ‘the fun stuff’ (gelato, sugary pastries, fried foods, local delicacies) the extra splurges. It is possible to stay on budget and stay on point with your nutrition and energy levels.
Exercise will be just as important on the road as it is for you at home. The physical and mental benefits are obvious to anyone with a regular exercise routine. Try to spend time outside (ex: walking, hiking and biking). Walk around as much as you can, rather than using public transportation; better yet, give yourself the challenge of walking to any spot that is under a km or a mile away. Bring your runners and discover your new city/town by jogging through it. Yoga is a fantastic way to stretch and relax your mind and body and hostels often host sessions. Along with quality food and sleep, exercise is the best way to avoid feeling sluggish and lethargic while travelling.
Wash your hands regularly with soap and water - antibacterial gel should only be used as a secondary option.
If you’re the type, you can always take it a step further by wiping down door handles, light switches and toilet handles with antibacterial wipes.
Let's be indiscreet for a second: Do be adventurous and try the ‘bum guns’ in the restrooms in SouthEast Asia (or the bidets in Europe). They are awesome - we all swore we’d install one in our restrooms back home. I didn't, but they were still amazing.
We’ve all seen it; two strangers lock eyes in a crowded room and cartoon hearts appear above their heads. Holiday hook-ups are definitely a big thing. Practising safe sex may not seem very different on the road than at home but chances are, you’ll be caught unprepared when travelling. Bring contraceptives along with you, as the quality might be inferior abroad. Order and pack enough birth-control packets to last your entire trip, and add condoms to your toiletry bag to protect from STIs.
Stay safe, friends.
Other articles you might enjoy: