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Traveler's guide to avoiding infectious diseases

Alternative Names

Travelers' health; Infectious diseases and travelers

Information

You can stay healthy during travel by taking the right steps to protect yourself before you go. You can also do things to help prevent disease while you are traveling. Most infections you catch while traveling are minor. In rare cases, however, they can be severe, or even deadly.

Diseases vary in different places in the world. You will need to take different preventive steps, depending on where you are going. The following things should be considered:

  • Local climate
  • Insects and parasites
  • Sanitation

The best public sources for up-to-date travel information are the:

BEFORE TRAVEL

Talk to your health care provider or visit a travel clinic 4 - 6 weeks before you leave for your trip. You may need several vaccinations. Some of these need time to work.

You also may need to update your vaccinations. For example, you may need "booster" vaccines for:

You also may need vaccines for diseases that are not commonly found in North America. Examples of recommended vaccines include:

Certain countries have required vaccinations. You may need proof that you have had this vaccine in order to enter the country.

  • Yellow fever vaccination is required to enter several Sub-Saharan, Central African, and South American countries.
  • Meningococcal vaccination is required to enter Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage.
  • For a complete list of country requirements, check the CDC or WHO web sites.

People who may have different vaccine requirements include:

  • Children
  • Elderly people
  • People with weakened immune systems or HIV
  • People who expect to be in contact with certain animals
  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding

Check with your health care provider or local travel clinic.

PREVENTING MALARIA

Malaria is a serious disease that spreads by the bite of certain mosquitoes. It occurs mainly in tropical and subtropical climates. Malaria can cause high fevers, shaking chills, flu-like symptoms, and anemia.

If you are traveling to an area where malaria is common, you may need to take medicines that prevent the disease. These medicines are taken before you leave, during your travel, and for a short period after you return. How well the medicines work vary. You should also take steps to prevent insect bites.

PREVENTING INSECT BITES

To prevent against bites from mosquitoes and other insects:

  • Wear insect repellent containing DEET or picaridin when you are outdoors, but use it safely .
  • You may also need to use a bed mosquito net while you sleep.
  • Wear trousers and long-sleeved shirts, particularly at dusk.
  • Sleep only in screened areas.
  • Do not wear perfumes.

FOOD AND WATER SAFETY

You can get some types of infections by eating or drinking contaminated food or water. There is a high risk of infection from eating undercooked or raw foods.

Stay away from the following foods:

  • Cooked food that has been allowed to cool (such as from street vendors)
  • Fruit that has not been washed with clean water and then peeled
  • Raw vegetables
  • Salads
  • Unpasteurized dairy foods, such as milk or cheese

Drinking untreated or contaminated water can lead to infection. Only drink the following liquids:

  • Canned or unopened bottled beverages (water, juice, carbonated mineral water, soft drinks)
  • Drinks made with boiled water, such as tea and coffee

Do not use ice in your drinks unless it is made from purified water. You can purify water by boiling it or by treating it with certain chemical kits or water filters.

OTHER STEPS TO PREVENT INFECTIOUS DISEASES

Clean your hands often. Use soap and water or an alcohol-based cleanser to help prevent infection.

Do not stand or swim in fresh-water rivers, streams, or lakes that have sewage or animal feces in them. This can lead to infection. Swimming in chlorinated pools is safe most of the time.

WHEN TO CONTACT A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL

Diarrhea can sometimes be treated with rest and fluids. Your health care provider may give you an antibiotic to take on your trip in case you get sick with severe diarrhea while traveling.

Get medical care right away if:

  • Diarrhea does not go away
  • You develop a high fever or become dehydrated

Contact your health care provider when you return home if you were sick with a fever while traveling.

References

Arguin P. Approach to the patient before and after travel. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 294.

Basnyat B, Ericsson CD. Travel medicine. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby Elsevier; 2011:chap 84.

Fairley JK, John CC. Health advice for children travelling internationally. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 168.

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia-Ministry of Health. Health Regulations: Meningococcal meningitis. Accessed February 9, 2014.

World Health Organization. Country list: Yellow fever vaccination requirements and recommendations. Accessed February 9, 2014.

Updated: 2/9/2014

Daniel Levy, MD, PhD, Infectious Diseases, Lutherville Personal Physicians, Lutherville, MD. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


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