By Sharyn Alden
Travelers often painstakingly plan out their itineraries and wardrobes – even their reading material. Yet sometimes there isn’t a bandage around when they need one, to say nothing of having a first-aid kit in their travel gear.
While you can’t prevent every accident, injury or illness, you’ll enjoy your trip more if you pack items that can provide relief until you receive medical attention.
It goes beyond packing, though. Before your vacation, think about travel health in three ways: what you should do before you leave home, what you should bring with you, and how to conduct yourself when you’re actually traveling.
Invariably, wherever I go someone is looking for an over-the-counter, easy-to-pack item like insect repellant or aloe-vera lotion. I can often oblige, but not so much when they say this: “What am I going to do? I’ve packed my prescriptions in my checked bag!”
It’s worth saying again: Don’t pack prescription medicine in checked luggage.
Don’t put prescription meds in little plastic pillboxes unless you bring the original containers. And take a copy of your prescriptions with you. You’re going to be frustrated if you lose your prescription medicine abroad and don’t have a refillable prescription with you.
Your prescription meds are a vital part of a well-thought-out travel first-aid kit. Because of the challenge inherent in fitting a lot of important pills and unguents into the smallest possible space, you might want to start with a general travel medical kit available from sporting-goods stores and pharmacies and modify it.
Besides prescriptions, your kit should include aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), an anti-diarrheal like Immodium, a topical antibiotic, an over-the-counter antacid like Maalox, flight and/or noise-blocking earplugs, motion or seasickness drugs or patches, and perhaps some cough drops or suppressants. If you’re subject to allergies or sinus trouble, throw in some OTC allergy medicine or some nasal spray.
Also, make room for a digital thermometer, scissors, tweezers, bandages, antibacterial wipes, a mirror, first-aid tape, and moleskin for blisters.
This may not fit in the kit, but if you’re traveling to tropical and subtropical areas, pack insect repellant with at least 30 percent DEET. Look for repellants that are controlled-release and don’t absorb; they’ll last longer.
Further protect yourself from mosquitoes by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants and avoiding perfumes and after-shave lotions. Don’t get into a bed unless mosquito netting had been draped around it in the afternoon. Not sure if your lodgings will have mosquito netting? Bring your own, from Travel Medicine, Inc.
Another thing to do before you leave: Many healthcare providers have a travel-medicine expert. Make an appointment; tell them where you’re going and discuss any specific health concerns.
At the very least, ask your own doctor what vaccinations you need updated or what else you need for your travel destinations. Then bring a letter from your doctor describing your specific medical conditions and medicines you take, including generic names, as well as prescriptions (have to say it again!) in case you need refills.
Other paperwork tips:
- If you don’t have online access to your medical records, carry copies with you.
- Bring your health-insurance card, but even more than that, call your insurance company before you leave and ask what they’ll cover should you have medical problems while traveling. Not all policies cover all situations equally.
- If you wear glasses or contact lenses, bring along a spare pair, as well as eyewear prescriptions.
- Take two copies of your passport with you. Put one in a carry-on and the other in a separate location (not your wallet) or another piece of travel gear. Leave copies of the original documents at home with a friend or relative.
Speaking of friends or relatives, if they need to reach you in an emergency, don’t count on cell phones working everywhere all the time. Sign up for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and you’ll get safety and security updates, and an U.S. embassy or consulate will be able to contact you and your loved ones in an emergency.
The final preparatory step: Think travel insurance. Get it before you leave home. I’m here to tell you, it has saved me a tremendous amount of money, time and energy. There have been many times I’ve needed to virtually lean on a travel-insurance ambassador while traveling.
Okay, you made it to your destination. Now how do you stay healthy?
Unless you’re a member of Anthony Bourdain’s crew, when in doubt don’t drink the water or eat local cuisine. The food and water from street vendors can be contaminated with disease-carrying parasites and viruses.
Eat only cooked food that is piping hot. Those tempting dishes often found at outdoor markets may have been cooked, but may have been standing for hours.
Eat food you can peel like bananas and avoid dairy products like ice cream.
Avoid drinking non-bottled water, having drinks with ice cubes or brushing your teeth with tap water. Instead, buy bottled water, or purify water by adding iodine-based purification tablets.
If you’ve followed all this up to now, that’s great, but there’s one more thing to think about. Car accidents are a huge travel concern. Travelers are so busy looking at the Eiffel Tower that they lose sight of what’s in front of them. Wear seatbelts in cars, helmets when riding scooters, and avoid becoming distracted when crossing streets.
This is a lot to take in, but once you get in the habit of traveling smart, it’ll become second nature. And here’s what else: When you prepare, plan, and pack, you enjoy your trip more and are less stressed. And isn’t that why you travel in the first place?
For more information:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- State Department tips for travelers
- World Health Organization
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, based in Madison, Wis.