As spring approaches, you may be thinking about this year’s summer getaway. Or maybe you’re an Type A planner who is already booking a Thanksgiving or Christmas trip.
Whatever your travel style, here's something you probably haven't considered: How to stay healthy while abroad. While you probably won’t make a Pinterest board of vaccinations with the same enthusiasm as you pin must-eat pastries and stylish travel outfits, taking care of your health on a trip might just save your life. Here are seven tips to help keep your vacations as stress- and sickness-free as possible:
1. First, call your doctor.
Your first call while planning a trip should be to a health care provider who can advise you on vaccinations, medication and other pertinent factors -- like your itinerary.
"A travel health provider can help refine your itinerary to minimize the risk of getting many diseases such as malaria or yellow fever by helping you avoid areas where those diseases are spread within certain countries,” says pharmacist Tania Gregorian, who specializes in travel at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
"I’ve seen many travelers who wish they’d talked to me before planning their trip, because they may have skipped a destination or two if it meant avoiding risk for malaria."
2. Take the vaccine recommendations for your destination seriously.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention details every country's recommended vaccines and ongoing threats, while offering tips for how to stay safe there.
Want to go to Aruba, for example? The CDC says you should be up to date on all of your routine vaccines, and also consider getting hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccines if you’re visiting rural areas or are "an adventurous eater." The agency will also note any enhanced travel alert. Aruba, for instance, has mosquitoes capable of transmitting Zika virus right now. Women who are pregnant should not travel to Aruba, the CDC advises, and women who are trying to become pregnant should discuss their travel plans with a doctor first.
Several countries in Africa actually require travelers to show proof of vaccination to be granted entry.
"If patients are nervous about getting these required vaccines, they should weigh the alternative of potentially not being allowed entry at the border and having to return home, or having to receive a vaccine at the airport prior to being allowed to enter," said Gregorian.
3. Make sure you leave enough time between vaccination and travel.
Certain vaccines may take a while to take full effect, explained Margaret Marren, primary nurse at the Loyola Travel Immunization Clinic in Maywood, Illinois. Some vaccines can take 10 days to two weeks to fully inoculate you from a disease, while others like hepatitis A are administered in a series over the course of a month.
One often-overlooked vaccine that could come in handy is the rabies vaccine, Marren said. The large number of feral dogs and wild monkeys roaming the streets in some parts of the world present a rabies hazard that few travelers consider.
4. Prepare for the worst case scenario.
More specifically, use the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program -- a free service that the State Department offers to all U.S. nationals traveling internationally. Through the program, the State Department can get in touch about upcoming threats, natural disasters or emergencies happening in the area you’re visiting. It can also help others try to get in touch with you if anything scary goes down in that country.
In the spirit of worst-case-scenario disaster planning, it’s also worth looking into travel or medical evacuation insurance. U.S. News and World Report notes that Medicare does not cover people who need emergency medical care abroad, and that some medical evacuation and health insurance plans may stop short of covering you if you plan on doing certain risky activities.
5. Ask about preventive medicines to bring along.
If you’re going to a developing country and you plan to sample most of its culinary delights, it’s prudent to bring along some antibiotics for when the eventual traveler’s diarrhea strikes.
If you’re going to an area where malaria is spreading, you’ll also have to take anti-malarial pills as a preventive measure. And if you plan on hiking in high-altitude regions, some altitude sickness prevention medicine may be in order. Your travel clinician can prescribe all these things for you, depending on who you are, what you plan to do on your trip and where you plan to go.
Over-the-counter medications you should consider bringing along include your preferred painkiller for headaches, mosquito repellant, and Immodium or Pepto-Bismol for indigestion. And of course, don’t forget to pack the medicine you take every day for your regular health maintenance, like insulin shots, heart condition pills or birth control pills.
"Healthwise travelers sometimes forget that although they are on vacation, their medical conditions are not," Gregorian said. "They should always continue to take their routine medications, and take at least one to two weeks of extra medication with them in their carry-on luggage in case of an emergency, flight delays or lost luggage."
6. Yes, you still should avoid tap water and ice cubes.
Some people in other countries may roll their eyes if they sense you’re being paranoid about tap water from a five-star resort or ice cubes from restaurants that use only filtered water.
But the CDC advises Americans to use bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth when traveling in most developing countries, even in cities. They also point out that fountain sodas, juice and ice cubes may be made with water that can make you sick, and vegetables and fruits served raw may be washed in unsafe water.
An estimated 30 to 70 percent of vacationers experience traveler’s diarrhea, and some of it has to do with the lack of safe water in those countries, the lack of hand-washing norms and perhaps an inadequate water supply that leads to poor hygiene practices, notes the CDC. The highest-risk countries for traveler’s diarrhea are in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, while the lowest risk countries are in North America, Northern and Western Europe, and the countries Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Countries with intermediate risk are in Eastern Europe, South Africa and some Caribbean islands.
"I always tell patients, the more rural the setting, the more cautious you need to be,” Gregorian said
7. Use common sense on culinary tours.
Thanks to travel shows and intrepid foodie stars, food tourism is bigger than ever. If you’re not going to eat a wriggling octopus tentacle in Seoul, did you even really go to South Korea?
Travel clinicians don’t want to rain on your food parade, but they do want you to use common sense. Some of the most committed food travelers are going to risk a few days of food poisoning because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and #YOLO, but if abdominal pain or diarrhea doesn’t clear up with antibiotics, or if it progresses to passing blood and getting fevers, a doctor should be involved.
Before you dig in, here’s what you should know: The CDC notes that steaming hot food and dry or packaged foods are generally safe because the high heat used to cook and process those foods generally kills germs. The same goes for alcohol, although not alcohol mixed with ice. Raw foods, from fruits and vegetables to meats and seafoods, are riskier and should “generally be avoided” if you want to absolutely steer clear of traveler’s diarrhea.
And while street vendors may not have the same infrastructure or standards as brick and mortar restaurants, the same rules still apply. Steaming hot meat off the grill will probably be safe, says the CDC, but beware “bushmeat,” or meat from bats, monkeys or rodents. They can carry diseases like Ebola and SARS, and you could be at risk of contracting something from people who have processed or prepared the meat.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there was a vaccine for Hepatitis C. There is no such vaccine, and we regret the error.