My dear fellow travelers, today I would like to address a really important and needed topic – about your health and safety during your travel. A successful trip consists of multiple factors, among which the most important one is the knowledge and awareness of situations that might (but with right prevention do not have to!) appear during your travels to various corners of the Earth. Discovering new, often unknown places is absolutely fantastic, but somewhere in this euphoria, going into raptures, taking pictures of more and more landscapes and trying lot of new dishes of various cuisines, you have to find a place for a rational approach and taking care of yourself.
If someone thinks that he or she is untouchable and that during vacation or a dream trip only beautiful situations happen, like in the movies, is really, really wrong. Regardless what your destination is and what is its character, taking care of yourself should be the first priority in everything you do. In the holiday season people travel more often but recently this trend changes and trips are made all year round. Moreover, more and more destinations are far away, tropical or culturally different. That means that – especially in a new place – we have to be well prepared to any possible situation, just to be able to peacefully enjoy our trip.
The quality of life and sanitary conditions in Europe are really high and we are all used to it, not thinking about how many aspects we should take into consideration while being in a different country. Especially those less developed, with different bacterial flora or with diseases that in our country are rare or not even present.
We should dispel the myth that even during short trip, for instance in Europe, we can forget about proper preparation. It is not important if we go for a week in Croatia or a month long excursion to Amazonia. These rules of taking care of yourself, of your safety and widely understood travel prophylactic apply EVERYWHERE.
I do not want to scare you but to share my travel experience and what I learnt about health on a trip – usually through my own example.
The most important message is that the majority of dangerous situations of diseases can be avoided if you follow the basic rules of prophylactic, that is preventing things from happening beforehand.
You have to remember that vaccination before the trip is an absolute must but the vaccination would not stop you from catching a disease, so our goal should be to preventing catching any disease in the first place. That’s when the basic, everyday safety rules kick in.
And that’s why today I am here to help you by gathering for you the most important rules that we, travelers, should know and follow. Let’s be honest, almost nothing is as crappy as being sick during your journey.
First of all, we have to remember about the water. It’s the contaminated water and food prepared with/on it is the most common cause of diseases among the travelling folk. Especially when we think about poorly developed countries, which are the destination of many “exotic trips”. The diseases you might catch because of the contaminated water are: so-called travelers’ diarrhea, typhoid fever, hepatitis A and cholera (that’s why it is strongly advised to vaccinate against these diseases because, contrary to what people usually think, they are not as rare as you might think).
The most simple way to treat your water is to boil it, because the heat in the boiling process kills all the pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites. If you are not able to boil the water (for example during survival trips), you should prepare water-treatment additives, which contain compounds of iodine, chlorine or silver or you could choose modern microfiltrating filters (portable point-of-use).
1. Drink only bottled water
(sealed with a plastic film, not used in Poland) or in cans. Even in restaurants order bottled water, not the one they serve in a pot or directly in a glass.
Attention! While being in India I came across a few cases when the water sold in kiosks was poured to plastic bottles from the well and then the cap was melted with a lighter, so that it looked like a mass-produced seal (!). There is a solution for this: always squeeze the water bottle hard – if the cap doesn’t launch in the air, it means that the bottle was indeed factory-made and you can drink it without any doubts.
2. Try to avoid beverages containing ice from unknown source
You, like, remember about the bottled water but sometimes it is so hot that you don’t even suspect that tap water might already be in your juice or drink. Checking the water source for the ice is generally impossible and that’s why I have a simple rule – in the tropics I never drink beverages with ice. Believe me, it’s not a big deal and you can live without the ice. But the problem if the water is really from a healthy source simply disappears.
3. Wash fruits and vegetables with bottled or boiled water
Remember – it’s the same rule as with the ice. If you washed your food with tap or well water, it’s the same as you drank it, so all the bacteria and viruses stay on your food. Even if you washed them, you should peel them too. You can also blanch them with hot water, it should kill most of the microorganisms.
4. Avoid food that was not cooked (not boiled or thermally prepared) or that was kept long in room temperature
Remember that the result of high temperatures and high humidity of the air, as well as poor storage conditions, is the danger that the food might have increased amount of microorganisms, that might cause a disease. It mostly applies, but not only, to meat, eggs, sea food and dairy products. Do not eat food that is not cooked enough. Or the food that you are not sure, if it was cooked properly or maybe was out of the fridge for too long. Apparently, it’s not that hard to come across such conditions – for example stalls in South-East Asia are a nest of various bacteria, viruses and fungi. One look at the raw meat or fish, that is kept out on the counters for hours, should be enough for the “hazard” lamp light up in your head. Another example – Cuba and its famous whipped cream cakes, sold out on the street in 30 degrees (without the fridge). Such snack should be listed as “HELL NO” in our menus.
5. Watch out for street stalls and eateries
I know, I know… you’d just get angry, because what’s the use of travelling far to a new place and not trying the food in places where the locals eat (especially that usually it’s really cheap). I am not saying that you shouldn’t… You should just be careful. Try to choose those that have lots of customers so the food has to be prepared continuously and if you do – try something cooked or fried. Besides, take a peek what the meal is served on – it would be best if the food is served on disposable plates with disposable cutlery, not on plastic plates that can be used more than once. You would realize at first glance if your plate was briefly rinsed in a huge bowl with water, that already stands there for few hours and has more bacteria than you could possibly imagine.
6. Wash your teeth with boiled or bottled water
Sounds fancy? It isn’t. Every experienced traveler would tell you that the first habit they have after arriving in an exotic destination is putting a bottle of water in the bathroom. Even just to remember to use it when while brushing teeth, because we are not used to washing our teeth with bottled water. I would take it one step further – you can even wash your face with bottled water. But if you think that it’s too much, you should always – ALWAYS – close your mouth when you wash your face or shower (and then dry your face and lips with a towel), so that you wouldn’t even have a chance to swallow the water. It’s still the same tap water we are trying to avoid and sometimes even a one drop would be enough to get a disease. Believe me, I’ve done this mistake in India. Only because I forgot to close my mouth when I was showering and washing my hair.
7. Wash your hands often and always dry them
Hand hygiene is an absolute must. You should always wash them before eating – and use soap, please! You should also remember to dry your hands with a towel, for the same reasons I’ve mentioned before – to prevent tap water from getting to your food. And it would be even best if you had a MUST HAVE of every traveler – an alcohol hand gel, which you should apply on your hands after washing them.
The insects are a really tough enemy. There are lots of them, they are really tiny and they “spread at the light speed”. They are troublesome not only because of some blisters on your skin or unbearable buzzing around your ear. Insects are the most dangerous carriers of infectious diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis. One bite of an insect that carries the disease is enough to become infected. These diseases are usually very nasty and for some of them (like malaria or dengue fever) there is no commonly available vaccination. The only way to defend ourselves is prophylaxis, so to put it in simple words – how not to get bitten. Because I assume that the most efficient method to minimize the risk, that is not going the endangered places (unfortunately, this definition covers most of the world and all that we call “tropics”), is out of the question.
1. Repellents, repellents, repellents
The simplest and usually most efficient method – use repellents, that is chemicals that scare away the insects. Choose those that contain DEET or icaridine. The form – spray, gel or roll-on – is not that important. You should also know what concentration you should choose. When it comes to DEET it should not be more than 20% for children and 50% for adults. It should not be used on babies that are younger than 2 months old.
DEET repellents should hold out for around 6 hours but you should use them more often, for example after every bath.
My advice is simple: do not hesitate to use the repellents. Do not think about it like: I don’t wanna, I forgot, maybe nothing would bite me. I had such approach, until I got dengue fever in Thailand.
You can try the local measures, which usually have natural components that scare the bugs away (for example: eucalyptus [Eucalyptus citriodora] oil or ruta graveolens oil) and most of the time are as efficient as the chemical repellents.
Attention! Remember that in tropical countries, in which you use UV filters, the repellent should be applied on your skin AFTER you cover it with a sunscreen.
2. Cover your body
Many guides advise that while being in tropics you should cover yourself from head to toe, what translates to: long trousers, long sleeves, socks and high shoes. If you watched the locals in, for example, Thailand, you would see that even in the 30 degree heat they wear jeans and long sleeve shirts. Partially because they are used to such heat but partially also to protect themselves from the insects. But… I know that if we are not going to a jungle or on a safari, but for a vacation trip to exotic countries, we all want to catch the sun and feel the warmth, so wearing jeans is the last thing one would dream of. I have such a solution, that I wear long and thin dresses or loose, thin trousers that cover the skin but are still flimsy. I cover my shoulders with a tunic or a kimono, so that I could protect myself from insect bites and on the other hand I don’t feel myself “covered shut”.
Attention! If you think about going on a more survival-ish trip, you should think about buying clothes that are manufactured as impregnated with an insecticide, like permethrin, which deterrents various types of bugs – mosquitos, ticks, blackflies and chiggers.
3. Prepare your accommodation
Checking the room before you fall asleep is really important. First of all, you should check if the doors and windows are hermetic, if the mosquito nets do not have holes in them and then you should get rid of any mosquito in the room.
I definitely recommend choosing rooms with air conditioning, because it acts as a natural barrier, which blows the flying insects off. If you don’t have air conditioning, you should absolutely chose places with mosquito nets but beware – check them for holes. In many hotels and hostels the mosquito nets leave much to be desired. While travelling in South-East Asia in less developed countries like Laos and Cambodia, I had my own mosquito net in my backpack (PLN 15 on Allegro), which saved me from bloodthirsty mosquitos attacks so many times!
4. Time of the day matters
Contrary to the urban legends, the infected mosquitos do not attack only at dusk or dawn. There are various types that carry various pathogens – and they bite around the clock. So realization what are we dealing with and what is the danger is a very important rule, that should make us to constantly defend ourselves.
The mosquitos that carry the dengue fever, chikungunya, zika and yellow fever bite during the day. Whereas at night there is a higher possibility that you might become the feast of mosquitos that carry malaria, Japanese encephalitis and West Nile fever.
5. Not only mosquitos
We should dispel also the myth that only the mosquitos are the danger. No. There are many more insects that carry lots of dangerous diseases, but you should not panic – you should be aware and following the rules listed above should keep most of the insects away from you. In a warm tropical climate there are also: sandflies (extraordinarily annoying micro creatures that are hard to see and that to not buzz like mosquitos do) – the carriers of leishmaniasis, simulium black flies that are infected with onchocerciasis (or river blindness), Chrysops deer flies that can cause loa loa filariasis and famous tsetse flies that infect us with African trypanosomiasis, known as sleeping sickness. So, there is lots to protect yourselves from!
Exotic travels means that you might come across animals that live next to people but are not well known to us, like for example monkeys in Indonesia or India. The first reflex is, of course, the curiosity and that we want to observe them from a closer distance, take a photo etc. You should be careful, because these are wild animals and they often are infected with various diseases, like rabies. Other rabies “carriers” are bats, which usually live in caves. Moreover, the probability that you could get bitten but a cat or dog is even bigger and there are lots of chances for that. For example in Thailand there are literally hordes of them running around. It’s worth to vaccine yourself for rabies and be restrained when it comes to contact with animals.
If you travel in the open and close to the nature, you should definitely watch out for snakes, scorpions and spiders. These animals do not live in our climate, so our mindset is not used to taking them into consideration in our plans.
1. Avoid contact
The most simple rule of all – stay away from animals you don’t know. Don’t try to touch monkeys or lure them with foot (it really gets them angry and they might become aggressive). The same applies to dogs and cats, even the domesticated ones. In poorly developed countries the approach to animals is different than in the West, no one vaccines the animals or check them at veterinarian, and most of these animals are simply gadabouts.
2. Wear full footwear
Flip-flops for a jungle walk? No, thank you! When you are going to the jungle, woods or even a countryside, you should remember to wear full footwear, because it will protect your best from possible bites of the animals that live in grass and thickets. You should also check the shoes before you put them on and shake them out thoroughly. It’s hard to imagine how much you can fit in a one shoe… But when I was in Thailand, four frogs squeezed into my shoe I left on a balcony the night before! And it was really difficult to get them out of it!
3. Protect the young ones
If you travel with children, you should remember that because of their height the appear as an easy prey for animals like cats or dogs and therefore are more exposed to the danger of being bitten or coming in contact with their saliva. Especially that children do not have mental limits and they eagerly seek the company of animals.
4. Prepare for snorkeling
If snorkeling is in your plans, be sure to buy or borrow special rubber shoes that would protect you from stepping on a poisonous sea animals. You don’t have to look far – for example in Croatia there are lots of sea urchins, which sting is very painful and poisonous. Not to mention what happens in waters of Australia!
Often you can’t see what’s the most dangerous, therefore one of the most advised vaccination is the one against tetanus, which resides in the soil. It’s easy to catch it, because even a small abrasion or scratch on your feet (and it’s not hard to get those in travel), combined with footwear that doesn’t cover your feet completely, exposes ourselves. The best option available is to wear full footwear.
1. Try not to walk barefoot
Still and all, the most thin flip-flops might save you from the infection. You should also avoid places with contaminated soil or sand.
2. Watch out, where you walk
You should also avoid places with a high grass, thickets and going into the woods after dark.
3. Don’t bathe in unmarked areas
You should also avoid bathing or wading in reservoirs or shallow ponds, because they might also contain parasites.
I would like to end this rule-list with some additional advices that would for sure come handy during your small and big trips.
1. Flights and jet lag
After arriving at my destination I usually take some time for acclimatization and getting used to, for example, high temperatures or altitude changes. Sightseeing and exploring the area while being exhausted or during an organism shock (which usually comes because of climate or time zone change) is a step straight to weakening your organism… what makes you more susceptible to catching a disease.
2. Sun protection
In a hot and tropical climate you should remember about body rehydration and sun protection. Do not make light of the sun, because the closer you are to the equator, the stronger it is, tans us quicker and stronger. Only high filters (minimum 30 SPF) protect us from such a sunshine… and a headgear too! It’s not about a nice looking tan but about avoiding sunstrokes and melanoma.
3. Human factor
A factor that is very important and usually underestimated. Sometimes it happens that you get sick on a trip, maybe even end up in a hospital. Besides having a good and trusted insurance, which is an absolute must even for a short trip in Europe, not to mention a longer trip to the tropics – you should also have eyes in the back of your head when it comes to health care units. In poorly developed countries the sterility level and staff professionalism might be very different from what we are used to in the West, what results in situations that the tourist might be exposed to catching a hepatitis type B, HIV/AIDS when injected for a drip or other medications. If you have a choice (I’m not talking about life and death situations, when any help might save lives), think it through if the place you ended up in, meets some sterility standards.
And the same applies to sexual intercourses. ALWAYS use a condom and be aware that in developing countries the risk of catching venereal diseases or HIV/AIDS is much higher than in Europe.
It’s the same with beauty treatments and tattoos – if you really have to, choose renowned places, because it would definitely lower the risk of getting a hepatitis B or C.
4. Plan ahead!
I know that when the travelling call roams your head, everything goes into the background. But be cautious with everything. The world is not going to disappear – but the health might, so choose wisely what places you want to visit. Check the embassy websites, they usually are very up-to-date when it comes to natural disasters but you should also check the WHO website for any epidemics or intensified risk of becoming infected with, for example, dengue fever in a specific area. If you don’t have to go there, don’t crown in to dangerous places and wait until the danger is gone. No one is untouchable and most of the dangerous situations can be avoided. On one hand – hey!, the adventure is the adventure… but at the end of the day all that matters is your health and your safety.
Without this, every travel becomes tasteless and not worth starting or remembering.