Editor’s note: This article was published prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you need to travel, check the CDC FAQ page about COVID-19 risks for travelers, which provides the latest guidance. For information about outdoor activities wherever you go (close to home is best), read Recreate Responsibly: An Activity-Specific Guide.
Being an adventurous traveler is a good thing, but having health issues during your journey is not the way anyone wants to step outside their comfort zone.
Here are some tips to help you avoid getting sick when you travel:
Research Your Destination
Check out the websites of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the World Health Organization, both of which offer current health information for all countries, including recent outbreaks and immunizations needed. Both sites also offer advice on ways to stay healthy when you travel.
Visit a Travel Doctor
Many health care systems have travel clinics with specially trained providers. Those providers can explain immunizations needed, offer advice tailored to your destination (bring your itinerary) and prescribe medications you might need. If your insurance provider doesn’t offer a travel clinic, then make an appointment with your regular physician.
Get Your Immunizations
Many immunizations need to be administered several months before you leave for your trip. Other medications, such as those for malaria, need to be taken before, during and after your trip. Make sure you get an international health certificate from your doctor documenting your immunizations.
Bring Health and First-Aid Essentials
- Resupply your first-aid kit: Inventory and replace things that are used up or expired. Include prescription medications (in original containers), copies of your prescriptions and immunization records. Also make sure your kit has any special medications recommended during your visit to the travel doctor. If you don’t have a first-aid kit yet, you can make or buy your own. Check out How to Build or Choose a First-Aid Kit and our First-Aid Kit Checklist for more details.
- Menstrual products: Finding your preferred product abroad can be difficult, so consider bringing what you need from home to last the full trip.
- Hand sanitizer: Soap and hot water are best, but, where they aren’t readily available or the water is suspect, having hand sanitizer in your pocket offers back-up germ protection.
- First-aid know-how: Another wise move, one that will feel especially empowering if you’re traveling to a remote place, is to sign up for a first-aid class to brush up on or expand your preparedness skills.
Minimize Jet Lag
Crossing multiple time zones will throw off your biological clock which can in turn compromise your body’s immune system. You can’t completely avoid it, but you can take steps to mitigate jet lag:
- Synch your sleep schedule up to your destination bedtime. Once you arrive, put off going to bed, even if you’re exhausted, until after sundown. You can make the transition less abrupt by adjusting gradually, shifting your home bedtime by 30 to 60 minutes each night in the days leading up to departure.
- Add a rest day at the start and end of your trip. Having a “jet-lag recovery day” is an ideal way to transition into and out of your vacation. Also plan easier activities and a relaxed itinerary for the first few days of your trip.
- Practice good sleep habits. The same advice you’ve heard (and sometimes followed) at home applies on the road—things like turning off screens well before bedtime and avoiding caffeine late in the day. Make a point of using your most effective sleep hacks when you travel, and add any helpful sleep accessories to your packing list. Sleeping well throughout your trip helps your immune system function well.
To learn more, read How Do Your Cure Jet Lag?
Be Vigilant on Your Flight
There’s no getting around the fact that sharing a cramped space and recirculated air for hours at a time with a random group of strangers can be a good way to catch a bug. Your prevention options on your flight are limited, but worth pursuing:
- Drink lots of fluids. Airline cabins have low humidity, so your body needs extra fluids to ensure your nose and mouth will have enough moisture (mucous) to trap incoming germs.
- Wash your hands frequently. And use hand sanitizer when the washroom is unavailable.
- Buy a window seat. You eliminate one potentially ill seatmate.
Drink Only Safe Water
In addition to being mindful about drinking enough fluids (it’s easy to forget when you travel), make certain the water you consume is safe to drink. Your travel research should clue you into the relative safety of a country’s water supplies. Here are some additional tips to avoid waterborne illnesses:
- If you’re unsure about any water source, err on the side of caution. Drink water that you’ve treated or drink bottled water. (Read Water Treatment for International Travel to learn more.)
- Avoid iced beverages in regions with questionable water. Freezing water doesn’t kill waterborne pathogens, so if you do have ice in your drink, make sure it’s from purified water.
- Avoid eating raw foods washed or grown in tainted water. Contaminated or parasite-infested water can be an issue beyond merely drinking it. Be especially wary of uncooked vegetables and any fruits that you can’t peel completely.
- Brush your teeth with purified water.
- Avoid swimming in water that may be contaminated.
Eat Healthy Foods
Experiencing the local cuisine is a great part of travel, but do so in moderation. Partly that’s to avoid subjecting your digestive system to a radical food shift. Be mindful of a few additional food risks, too, as you enjoy international cuisines:
- Be selective about street foods. Observe the food handling practices of the vendor. (See above about raw fruits and vegetables.)
- Pass up foods that have been sitting all day. Reheating alone is unlikely to kill the bacteria that have enjoyed several hours of unchecked growth.
- In places where refrigeration is questionable, avoid dairy products and dishes made using those products. This is especially true in areas with warm climates.
- If you have kids, consider bringing familiar food from home. That helps ease the transition for picky palates and developing digestive systems.
Use Insect Repellent
Mosquitoes and flies transmit a variety of diseases, including malaria, yellow fever, Zika, West Nile virus, sleeping sickness and more. Ticks can also transmit a growing number of illnesses, like Lyme disease. Your initial destination research will tell you which types of insects are the primary concern. For help in selecting and applying the insect-repellent products that will be the most effective against those insects, read How to Choose Insect Repellent and Tips on How to Use Insect Repellent.
Protect Yourself from Sunburn
Few things can make you more miserable than getting severely sunburned on the first day of a vacation. Certain environments increase UV light intensity, like high altitudes or the sun’s reflection off snow and water. Your best defense is to slather up and cover up. For a primer on products to protect you from the sun, read How to Choose and Use Sunscreen and How to Choose Sun-Protection (UPF-rated) Clothing.
Wear Shoes for Protection
Walking barefoot on vacation is an alluring idea, but feet can get exposed to hazards you’d rather avoid, including stings, bites and cuts. In addition, feet that are rarely exposed to the sun back home will sunburn surprisingly quickly.
While the following tips won’t help you avoid getting sick, these are some additional steps you should take when planning to travel:
Get Medical Insurance
Contact your health insurance company to get details about coverage beyond U.S. borders. Then, if your policy has shortcomings, purchase additional coverage. Many travel insurance companies offer medical policies, and most general travel insurance policies include medical coverage among their benefits. For more details, read How to Choose Travel Insurance.
Consider Medical Evacuation Coverage
Do some research to see if your destination country has adequate medical facilities, and to find out if its facilities will be far away from where you’ll be in that country. Medically assisted air transport to a distant hospital (or back to the U.S.) can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, if you conclude that there’s a lack of modern medical facilities close at hand, be sure your insurance includes medical evacuation coverage.