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Heading overseas? Here's how to avoid health troubles

  • Story Highlights
  • A travel-medicine clinic can provide country-specific info, immunizations
  • Take with you: an antidiarrheal, a basic pain reliever, sunscreen
  • On a plane, avoid alcohol and caffeine, drink a lot of water
  • To avoid food poisoning, eat food that's totally cooked or is served hot
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By Rachel Webster
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Health

Kristin Reinhardt still has the green pills in their original packaging, covered with Chinese characters, a souvenir from a 2004 trip to China that left her at the mercy of local medical practices after her travel party was struck with a stomach bug on a riverboat cruise. "I ended up with these Chinese herbs that flat out made me nervous," says the San Diego, California, resident.

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If you're traveling overseas, you may need specific vaccines to protect you from diseases at your destination.

The concoction came not from a doctor but from a shop filled with mystifying medicinal ingredients such as dandelions and pearls. And the package had no English instructions on dosage, drug interactions, ingredients, or side effects. Fortunately for Reinhardt, the pills did not have any adverse effects. "Now when I travel I always make sure I take the medicine that I know," she says. "It was probably the one time I really needed Western medicine the most, or would have felt more reassured with it."

People focus mainly on their itineraries and flights when they travel outside the United States, but many forget about their health -- and that's where our expert tips come in. Here's what you need to know before you leave and remember while you're away.

BEFORE YOU GO

Don't let health risks surprise you

A visit to a travel-medicine clinic will give you a heads up about what to expect when you reach your destination; the doctor there can provide country-specific information and immunizations, says Gonzalo Ballon-Lando, M.D., infectious disease specialist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego. "Occasionally people will cancel their plans because they don't want to take the risk of the diseases they might be exposed to," he says. Health.com: Secrets to a stress-free vacation

Get vaccine savvy

Besides standard stateside immunizations, such as tetanus and hepatitis A and B shots, you may need other vaccines to protect you from diseases found at your destination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Traveler's Health Web site has information about suggested immunizations and up-to-date health advisories for every region of the world. Also, allow at least six to eight weeks for vaccinations, if necessary, recommends Michael Zimring, M.D., director of the Center of Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, and author of "Healthy Travel: Don't Travel Without It."

Pack for any possibility

Women risk developing urinary tract infections, especially when traveling in areas with few bathrooms, says registered pharmacist Lisa M. Chavis, author of "Ask Your Pharmacist." She recommends packing Cystex ($7 to $10 for 40 tablets; at drugstores) for relief of UTI symptoms until a doctor can prescribe antibiotics. Also, experts stress that you need to take along these three travel necessities -- an antidiarrheal (such as Imodium), a basic pain reliever (Motrin, Tylenol, or Advil), and sunscreen. Other recommendations:

• Lotion with aloe for sunburn. Use a formula with lidocaine (such as Banana Boat Sooth-A-Caine Spray Gel; about $6 at drugstores) that will help stop pain, Chavis says.

• Insect repellent. Have it on hand to keep disease-transmitting mosquitoes (think: malaria and dengue fever) at bay.

• Prescription medications. Bring enough to last for the duration of your trip.

• Allergy meds. Take along antihistamines or an EpiPen for emergencies.

WHILE YOU'RE THERE

Stay hydrated

Airplanes are notorious for transmitting germs through recirculated air, but that's not the only issue with the air up there: Dry air in planes can sneakily cause dehydration for even a vigilant traveler. Also, avoid diuretics or substances that strip water from the body. "On a plane, avoid alcohol and caffeine, and drink a lot of water," Zimring says. Health.com: Ready, set, get out of town

Watch what you eat -- and drink

Sip a lot of water to stay hydrated, but be mindful of the water quality overseas: Waterborne E. coli and Salmonella are quick tickets to nasty cases of traveler's diarrhea. Also, drink bottled water overseas -- but only if the bottle's seal is intact, Zimring cautions. Make sure it hasn't been refilled with local water. "Sometimes you're better off with seltzer water because those bottles are harder to fill," he adds. Avoiding local water means carefully watching what foods you eat, too; raw fruits or vegetables may have been washed in unfiltered water. "The best way to avoid food poisoning is to eat food that has been totally cooked or that is served hot," Ballon-Lando says. Health.com: Stay fit on vacation

Listen to your body

Finally, take time to rest. It's a vacation, after all, so go easy. "People overdo it a lot while they're on vacation -- they walk a lot, they carry heavy bags," Chavis says. Same goes for eating: Easing into new menus will help you adjust. "Because it's your holiday, you might have a tendency to eat or drink too much, or to sample a little bit of everything." Your best bet is to introduce new things slowly and avoid overconsumption. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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Copyright Health Magazine 2009

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