Tips For Staying Healthy While Travelling

by | 22 Jan, 2019

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When it comes to staying healthy while travelling, it truly is the case that prevention is better than the cure. When it comes to receiving unplanned medical treatment, it pays to be aware that it will likely be a very different experience to what you are used to home.

Access to required drugs or the expertise to treat travel diseases are not a given in some parts of the world. Also even if your travel insurance does cover you, it’s unfair for tourists to put additional strains on undeveloped countries’ health services through their unpreparedness.

Tips For Staying Healthy While Travelling

The good news is you can reduce that risk to a minimum by properly preparing and following some travel health and safety basics. Even if it’s only a minor case of travellers diarrhoea, the last thing you want is to be wasting your adventure time holed up in a hostel bathroom.

First we’re going to go into some detail about the most common traveller diseases. But feel free to skip through straight to the specific healthy travel tips.

Common Travellers Diseases

Malaria

  • What is it: Serious tropical disease.
  • How you get it: Mosquito bites, mainly at night.
  • Where: Central and South America, Africa, South Asia.
  • Risk: Low to High, see worldwide map here.
  • Symptoms: High fever, headaches, vomiting, muscle pain, diarrhoea.
  • Appearance: Usually 7-18 days but can be a year or more.
  • Is it fatal: Yes if left untreated.
  • Treatment: Antimalarial medication.
  • Is there a vaccine: No, but there are anti-malaria tablets.

Zika

  • What is it: Viral disease.
  • How you get it:  Mosquito bites.
  • Where: Pacific Islands, South and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, South Asia.
  • Risk: Generally moderate but country specific.
  • Symptoms: Mostly none. Sometimes a rash, fever, headache, back and eye pain.
  • Is it fatal: No but it can cause serious birth defects in pregnant women.
  • Treatment: No cure or specific treatment. Rest, painkillers and rehydration.
  • Is there a vaccine: No.

Dengue Fever

  • What is it: Viral infection.
  • How you get it: Mosquitos bites.
  • Where: Asia, the Caribbean, South and Central America, Africa, Pacific Islands, Australia.
  • Risk: Moderate – high, see worldwide map here.
  • Symptoms: High fever, severe headache, red rash, muscle and joint pain.
  • Is it fatal: It can be. Particularly if you get it more than once.
  • Treatment: No cure or specific treatment. Rest, painkillers and rehydration.
  • Is there a vaccine: No.

Chikungunya

  • What is it: Viral infection.
  • How you get it: Mosquito bites, mainly during the day.
  • Where: Worldwide.
  • Risk: Low, few epidemics reported in recent years.
  • Symptoms: Sudden onset of fever, headache and joint pain.
  • Is it fatal: No. But can cause long terms heart, eye and joint complications.
  • Treatment: No specific antiviral treatment. Painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication.
  • Is there a vaccine: No
travellers diseases

Typhoid

  • What is it: Bacterial infection affecting many organs.
  • How you get it: Highly contagious in contaminated food or water.
  • Where: Worldwide.
  • Risk: High in countries with poor hygiene and sanitation
  • Symptoms: High temperature, headaches, general aches, cough and constipation.
  • Is it fatal: Without antibiotic treatment, yes.
  • Treatment: Antibiotics, rest, rehydration. Hospitalisation for severe symptoms.
  • Is there a vaccine: Yes.

Yellow Fever

  • What is it: Viral infection affecting liver and kidneys.
  • How you get it: Mosquito bites, mainly during the day.
  • Where: Africa, South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
  • Risk: Generally moderate. See specific risk zones here.
  • Symptoms: High temperature, vomiting, muscle pain, loss of appetite.
  • Is it fatal: It can be, if progresses to chronic conditions with jaundice and organ failure.
  • Treatment: No cure. Painkillers and rehydration. Most fully recover in 3-4 days.
  • Is there a vaccine: Yes.

Hepatitis A

  • What is it: Viral liver infection.
  • How you get it: Most commonly contaminated food or water.
  • Where: Worldwide.
  • Risk: High in countries with poor hygiene and sanitation.
  • Symptoms: Generally unwell, fever, loss of appetite, jaundice, itchy skin, dark urine.
  • Is it fatal: Very rarely, most people fully recover and then have immunity.
  • Treatment: No cure. Rest, painkillers, antihistamines. Usually recover within 2 months.
  • Is there a vaccine: Yes.

Hepatitis B

  • What is it: Viral liver infection.
  • How you get it: Contaminated blood and bodily fluids.
  • Where: Africa, Asia, Pacific Islands, South America, Europe, Middle East, India.
  • Risk: Low (although certain groups of people are more at risk).
  • Symptoms: Most people don’t have any.
  • Is it fatal: Rarely. But if progresses to chronic condition can cause liver cancer.
  • Treatment: No cure. If develops to chronic, there are only supportive medications.
  • Is there a vaccine: Yes.

Hepatitis C

  • What is it: Viral liver infection.
  • How you get it: Contaminated blood to blood contact.
  • Where: Worldwide.
  • Risk: Low (although certain groups of people are more at risk).
  • Symptoms: Most people don’t have any until liver has been significantly damaged.
  • Is it fatal: Potentially. If left untreated can cause liver failure.
  • Treatment: If progresses to chronic will need 8-12 weeks of antiviral medication.
  • Is there a vaccine: No.

Rabies

  • What is it: Rare but serious infection of brain and nerves.
  • How you get it: Bite or scratch of an infected animal, usually dogs.
  • Where: Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.
  • Risk: Low (unless in frequent contact with animals).
  • Symptoms: Fever and headache, then hallucinations, spasms, frothing and paralysis.
  • Is it fatal: Almost always fatal once symptoms appear, but treatment is very effective.
  • Treatment: Rabies vaccine course – 4 doses over a month or 2 doses a few days apart if you have had pre-exposure vaccine.
  • Is there a vaccine: Only the pre-exposure vaccine, further treatment is always needed.
rabies traveller vaccine

Japanese Encephalitis

  • What is it: Rare viral brain infection.
  • How you get it: Mosquito bites.
  • Where: Rural areas in South East Asia, the Pacific islands and the Far East.
  • Risk: Low (unless spending considerable time in rural areas).
  • Symptoms: Fever, seizures, confusion, inability to speak, tremors, muscle weakness.
  • Is it fatal: It can be. And can cause brain damage and paralysis.
  • Treatment: No specific treatments. Rest, fluids and pain relief.
  • Is there a vaccine: Yes.

Schistosomiasis

  • What is it: Parasitic worm infection.
  • How you get it: Activities in infested fresh water.
  • Where: Mainly Africa but some parts of South America and Southeast Asia.
  • Risk: High in affected rivers and lakes.
  • Symptoms: Often no symptoms. Sometimes fever, diarrhoea, cough or a rash.
  • Is it fatal: No. But years later can damage bladder, kidneys, bowel, liver and genital tract.
  • Treatment: Praziquantel medication kills the worms.
  • Is there a vaccine: No.

Tick-borne Encephalitis

  • What is it: Viral infection affecting central nervous system.
  • How you get it: Bites from infected ticks.
  • Where: Europe and Asia
  • Risk: Low
  • Symptoms: Fever, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, headache, confusion, light sensitivity.
  • Is it fatal: Rarely
  • Treatment: No specific drug therapy, supportive care and potentially anti-inflammatory drugs.
  • Is there a vaccine: Yes. But only recommended for prolonged exposure.

Cholera

  • What is it: Bacterial disease of the small intestine.
  • How you get it: Contaminated food or water.
  • Where: Parts of Asia and Africa.
  • Risk: Low
  • Symptoms: Severe diarrhea, dehydration, nausea and vomiting.
  • Is it fatal: Very rare if treated.
  • Treatment: Oral rehydration and potentially intravenous fluids.
  • Is there a vaccine: Yes. But only recommended for certain groups, e.g. aid workers.

Traveller’s Diarrhoea

  • What is it: Not sure I need to explain this.
  • How you get it: Food contaminated with bacteria such as E.coli, Salmonella and Norovirus.
  • Where: Worldwide
  • Risk: Moderate (particularly in first few weeks of travel).
  • Symptoms: Loose/watery bowel motions, fever, stomach cramps, nausea or vomiting.
  • Is it fatal: No. Most people recover within 3-5 days.
  • Treatment: Plenty of clear drinks and oral rehydration solutions.
  • Is there a vaccine: No.

Essential Travel Jabs

There are also other serious infectious disease that can affect travellers, such as Tetanus, Polio, Diphtheria, Tuberculosis, Measles, Mumps and Rubella.  However if you are from a developed country, you will likely have had these vaccines as part of your country’s national vaccination programme.

For UK travellers, here is the NHS childhood vaccination programme which includes all of the above additionally mentioned common travel diseases. In addition, for US travellers you are also likely to already have had Hepatitis A and B vaccines as part of your childhood immunisation schedule.

You should however always check your medical records. And it is recommended to have boosters for some diseases such as Tetanus, if travelling to countries where they are particularly prevalent.

healthy travel tips

Depending on your healthcare provider, some essential travel jabs may be free of charge in the UK. But this can vary even within the same city. For example I could get a Hepatitis A & B immunisation for free from my GP, but at different doctors, James had to pay for his.

Avoid Travel Illness

For UK travellers our advice when it comes to travel jabs and staying healthy while travelling is to first visit your GP. You can check you’ve had all the standard vaccine preventable diseases, get any top up you need and any required vaccines that are free of charge.

Then you should visit a specialist travel vaccine clinic for the rest. They will also be able to give you the most up to date information on common travel diseases for the specific countries on your itinerary.

Most countries require a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate when arriving from countries with risk of yellow fever transmission, this is to prevent international spread of the disease.

yellow fever vaccination certificate

There are many different schools of thought on vaccinations. However from a responsible travel point of view, if you are travelling to a country where you will be at risk of contracting a travel disease and a vaccine is available, you should get it.

Because, as well as putting unnecessary strain on what may be may be already be very limited healthcare resources, you will be contributing to the spread of that disease. Potentially to people who cannot afford access to healthcare intervention. Don’t be that dickhead.

For more detailed and constantly updated travel disease risks for your specific itinerary you can check the NHS Fit for travel website, Travel Health Pro or the countries section on World Health Organisation website.

Avoid Mosquito Bites

You will notice from many of the above common travel diseases that staying healthy while travelling revolves a lot around not getting bitten by mosquitos. And that even if the symptoms of a travelling disease do not occur right away, they can pop up a year or more later.

And on top of that, Yellow Fever and Malaria are the only mosquito-borne diseases for which preventative medical treatment is available. So when it comes to Zika, Dengue Fever and Chikungunya the only way to properly protect yourself is to not get bitten.

avoid mosquito borne travel diseases

Being the sneaky little bastards that they are, it’s highly likely that you will survive your travels without a single mosquito bite. However, reducing how much you do get bitten obviously significantly reduces the chances of contracting a mosquito-borne disease.

It’s widely reported that using a mosquito repellent that contains DEET is the only effective way to truly prevent mosquito bites. But having seen the effect the chemical had on James’s watch i.e. it melted it, we personally opt to use it only when there is no alternative.

Our go to mosquito repellent is Incognito. It’s 100% natural, the packaging is made from renewable source sugarcane and it can be used on babies from 6 months old. Its active ingredient, oil of lemon eucalyptus is recommended by the NHS and WHO.

We have used it all over the world and can vouch for it to prevent you from getting sick while travelling. We would never travel without it. But it is difficult to find on the road, so you’re going to need to stock up on it before you set off on your travels.

Other ways of protecting against mosquito bites are to:

Anti-malarial Tablets

From constipation, increased sun sensitivity, upset stomachs and itchy skin to more serious conditions such as anxiety and anorexia, antimalarials can have some pretty serious side effects. So always discuss your travel health choices with a qualified medical professional.

Antimalarial tablets

For some types of antimalarials you need to start a few weeks before, some you need to take for a few weeks after. Missing a dose can lead to malarial infection. And even if you do it all correctly, they are not always 100% effective. So you must practice bite avoidance too.

In the UK you can purchase some antimalarials from pharmacies without a prescription. These are the antimalarial drugs available in the US. Because I have a history with anxiety, I always opt for Malarone (Atovaquone/Proguanil) over the more commonly used Doxycycline.

If you choose to take one of the more common antimalarials, don’t worry about carrying months and months worth around with you for Southeast Asia. They are readily available in English speaking pharmacies and in our experience, at a much cheaper price too.

Keep The Germs At Bay

It’s THE most basic of advice but washing your hands on the regular is by far one of the best ways of staying healthy when travelling. It’s a disgusting thought, but fecal-oral transmission is how some of the most serious travel diseases listed above are contracted.

You can’t control how often other people wash their hands or what they touch. But you can control the frequency with which you wash your own hand. And also minimise how often you touch your face or mouth.

Common travel diseases

Now there’s no need to turn into a manic germaphobe. Just make a point of remembering to wash your hands more often than you usually would at home. And carry some hand santiser with you for when soap and water isn’t available. And clean your phone on the regular too.

Aside from the more serious traveller diseases and particularly when you first start travelling, you will be exposed to bugs and germs that your body may not have encountered before. And sharing dorm rooms means picking up stomach bugs and colds is rather common.

Travel Health Tips

Having said that, the most germ infested environments you will come across on your travels are aeroplanes. Tray tables and seat belts notoriously contain more germs that the toilets on aeroplanes. Use hand sanitiser and an antibacterial mouthwash to combat them.

This is not an obvious one, but be mindful when swimming in the sea as the water may be polluted. Even the most unlikely places can be full of bacteria. For example the sea on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro contains ridiculously high levels of bacteria.

And we know so many people who have gotten sick from being in the water in the surfing haven of Sayulita in Mexico. Don’t assume that just because it looks clean it is. Avoid travel illness from the sea by trying not to ingest it by accident or open your eyes underwater.

Safe Drinking Water

Talking about water drinking, contaminated water is THE quickest way to getting sick while travelling. Water that isn’t properly treated can be rife with water-borne diseases. They are invisible to the eye and the world’s leading killer. Don’t mess around with this travel health tip.

Even if the local population and other travellers are drinking it, there’s no way to know that your body will be okay. Before it’s too late that is. Even if it’s not a serious travel disease, a bad case of the shits could ruin your travels for days.

So save yourself the hassle and pick up a Water To Go filter bottle. Not only will you be able to drink safely from any water source, bar sea water, you will be be significantly reducing your single use plastic consumption from buying bottled water.

Traveller Diseases From Food

From the golden advice of ‘eat safe food’ to it’s best to ‘curb your adventurous foodie enthusiasm’, there are some mad ideas around when it comes to safety tips for eating abroad.

If you’re anything like us, one of the things you’ll be looking forward to on your travels is trying all the local food. And my friends, if you are in country with street food stalls, you better believe that is where the good stuff is at.

how to avoid travel illness

So when it comes to eating and staying healthy while travelling, we have a few important but practical pieces of travel health advice:

  • Only eat in places that are busy
  • Eat inline with local meal times so food is fresh
  • Keep an eye on how your food is prepared
  • Don’t be fooled by appearance of cleanliness
  • Take your own reusable cutlery (also cuts down on plastic consumption)

Make sure you drink enough water too. It’s easy to underestimate how much your body needs in hot climates when you’re busy and excited running around new places. Dehydration can creep up on you, so make sure you always have a filter water bottle with you.

how to stay healthy while travelling

Visiting local markets and getting yourself a dose of local fruit or veg is a great way to give your immune system a pep up. Just be sure to wash it properly, or to be on the safe side opt for stuff you can peel. You could also consider taking a multivitamin supplement with you.

Watch The Booze

It can be all too tempting to have a few cheeky beers most days. Especially in cheap countries with litres of beer costing well under a dollar. And you are on vacation too, likely enjoying a well deserved break from work.

save water drink beer sign

But it’s important to give your body a break. Having to deal with even a mild hangover recovery everyday will take its toll on your body and your liver in particular. Alcohol is also a diuretic, which means it dehydrates you. Definitely not conducive to staying healthy while travelling.

Not to mention, you are going to get far more out of your adventures if you are not waking up with a fuzzy head. We’re not trying to be wet blankets here. And after all if you want to get drunk as skunk every night that’s on your dime and time. We’re just telling you the facts.

Get Enough Sleep

It’s also a well known consequence, that going consistently without enough kip will run you down. And when your body is tired, it’s more likely to pick up bugs. It will also have less energy to fight them off if you do get sick while travelling.

tips to stay healthy while travelling

Knocking sleep interfering booze on the head for a few nights a week will significantly help. But sleeping in hostel dorms can also mean interrupted sleep patterns. Go armed with earplugs and a sleep mask. And if your budget allows, consider treating yourself to a private room on occasion.

Sun Protection

Make sure you’re wearing the correct sun protection for your skin type. Getting sunburnt is not cool, it’s dangerous. And missing out on travel adventures because you have sunstroke sucks. As does just generally feeling miserable because your skin is sore.

Sarah putting sun screen

Personally I couldn’t care less about getting a tan and it wrecks my tatts so I just use a good quality UVB/UVB high factor suncream all the time. Maybe it’s overkill but we spend a lot of time in hot countries and you know #ownyourtone.

Travel Exercise

It’s no secret that keeping active increases your overall wellbeing and strengthens your immune system. But we’re not talking about pounding the gym treadmill to avoid getting sick while travelling. Rather simply finding some active hobbies that you enjoy doing.

For us that’s yoga and hiking. For you it might be learning to surf in Australia or learning to Tango in Argentina. It really doesn’t matter. My point is just to find something active that enhances your travel adventures.

James on his aerobic rhythm

Making a point of always walking to places is also a great tip for staying healthy while travelling. Only if it’s really far or we’re not sure of the areas we’d be walking through safety wise do we get around by public transport. It also means you get to see more of places and save a few quid.

Hooking Up While Travelling

Contracting a sexually transmitted disease while travelling is not likely on your bucket list. So just to touch on hooking up while travelling, if you are single, do yourself a favour and take a stash of condoms with you.

As well as a travel disease in this department being majorly inconvenient and embarrassing, it could be costly to get treatment for. Because, that’s right, most travel insurance providers will not cover your costs for treatment of sexually transmitted travel diseases.

Best Travel Health Insurance

Of course, even with all these tips for staying healthy while travelling, getting ill is just part of everyday life. Whether you are travelling or not. But of you do get sick while travelling you are going to want to know you have access to good healthcare.

We recommend Worlds Nomads. They have a no bullshit approach when it comes to explaining the terms of your travel insurance policy and are designed with adventurous travellers like us in mind. Get a quick, no-obligation quote here:

If you have any unanswered questions about how to stay healthy while travelling, drop us a note in the comments and we’ll do our best to help.

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***This post was originally published in August 2016 but has been completely revamped and extended to provide you with the most up to date and accurate information.***