Backpacking round the world – especially for an extended period – will expose you to a variety of bugs, parasites and envioronments that can make you ill. Do you know the most common illnesses that can hit you abroad? More importantly do you know what to do if you get them? This handy list will give you all the basic knowledge you need.
Travelling the world takes you away from familiar surroundings and what you are use to. In many ways that is a wonderful thing and the reason many people travel, but changes in your environment, diet and climate and increased exposure to sun, insects and foreign bacteria can have a negative effect on your immune system and make you ill.
Everything from Montezuma’s Revenge and Delhi Belly to some strange unidentified, fungating tropical lurgy, illnesses are common for many backpackers. The big problem is they all put the fear of god into many travellers and the mere thought of what may happen has everyone reaching for the entire stock cupboard of the local chemist and carrying kits that the average paramedic would be proud of.
Having a basic first aid kit with basic medication is important, but there is no need to go overboard. It may not be pleasant and you may be away from your local GP or your home comforts, but getting ill abroad really doesn’t have to completely ruin your trip. Here are some of the most common ailments and what you need to do to deal with them.
This isn’t an illness in and of itself, but insect bites can at the very least cause annoying or painful welts on your skin that can have an annoying impact on your trip, or even cause a variety of illnesses such as malaria and dengue from mosquitoes in certain areas.
Prevention is obviously better than cure here – especially when it comes to considering diseases that are transmitted via insect bites – and there are a variety of ways you can reduce the risk of being bitten. If you are in an area that you know is a high risk of malaria then you should also be taking measures against this too such as antimalarial prophylaxis.
If you do get bit however, then a simple antihistamine cream will help reduce the swelling and inflammation and also ease the itchiness and discomfort. You can take a small tube with you if you like but it is commonly available in chemists and pharmacies around the world at very little cost. A cold compress (a flannel soaked in cold water or an ice pack) can help ease any pain and swelling if it gets too annoying too.
Upset stomach and gastrointestinal problems.
Loose stools, diarrhoea or even upset stomachs are extremely common on any trip and most travellers will have problems from time to time.
Unless you have long standing GI issues which would obviously need a little more precaution and advice or information individual to you, you really don’t have to worry too much about it. Foreign bacteria in foods and water, or even poor hygiene, can all have an effect on our digestive system, and it is important to remember that it is completely normal and the body is great at righting itself given a little time.
Again, prevention is part of the cure here. Good hand hygiene is essential – just as it is at home – and you should be careful of drinking untreated water or foods that may have been washed in untreated water (including fruits you don’t peel) if your stomach isn’t used to the particular bacteria in that country. Do not use untreated water from a tap or any other source if you are travelling in a country that doesn’t generally treat its water, and stick to bottled water instead. Filter bottles are also a great alternative if you want to save money and the environment by cutting down on plastic bottle waste.
Imodium (loperamide) is a common medication that is useful if you get diarrhoea, but it is extremely important to remember that this is just a ‘stopper’, it is not a cure. Too many travellers take boxes of these away with them and pop them like sweets at the slightest wobble, and this is completely counterproductive. They are really handy as a temporary measure if you develop loose stools and need to take a long distance train or a flight or something, but don’t rely on them too much as a cure.
Oral rehydration tablets are not a cure for diarrhoea either. They are there essentially to help rehydrate you and replace lost salt, glucose and other minerals lost through your illness. They aren’t entirely necessary outside of severe cases providing that you drink plenty and eat healthily too.
Antibiotics are not in any way necessary or useful. I will repeat that due to the sheer amount of backpackers who carry broad spectrum antibiotics with them and take them for everything.
Antibiotics are not in any way necessary or useful in most cases!
This is because diarroeah – in all but extreme cases – is much better treated naturally. Antibiotics MAY be prescribed in some very severe cases when a specific bacteria has been identified or if you have another condition that would necessitate it, but this should be done by and under the prescription and supervision of a qualified professional.
The best thing to do if you develop any loose stools or diarrhoea is to simply stop travelling for a couple of days and rest! Stay very hydrated to counterbalance lost fluids, taking small regular sips, and eat a normal solid diet as soon as you feel able. Even if you don’t have a great appetite at first try and have small amounts of food such as toast or bananas regularly and basically let everything just pass through your system. Which it will in 24 – 48 hours dependent on the type of infection. You may also be more comfortable upgrading to a private room with a bathroom for a night or two as well to rest up in if you have been staying in dorms. Having the freedom and flexibility to do this is one of the best things about long term, slow backpacking.
Your body will right itself in a day or two and you can carry on as normal.
Sunburn is so common because it occurs so easily, even if you think you are doing all the right things and covering up.
I consider myself reasonably sensible when it comes to protecting myself , but even I got a seriously bad case of sunburn once when I was snorkelling in Thailand thanks to a combination of losing track of the time and the ‘waterproof’ lotion I was using perhaps not being as waterproof as it claimed. Probably. Easily done, but it was still bad!
Sun protection, the right clothing and plenty of suncream reapplied regularly should go without saying really. But if you do get a touch of sunburn then don’t worry too much.
Drink plenty of fluids to replace any lost fluids and prevent dehydration, and cool compresses or a cool shower may help to ease the discomfort.
Aftersun lotion is perfect for easing the discomfort and and moisturising the skin too. If you forgot to bring some with you don’t worry, there are a variety of aftersun lotions widely and easily available in most pharmacies or 7/11 equivalents around the world. Aloe Vera cream also works particularly well.
Heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
A combination of often much hotter climates, strenuous activities and not staying hydrated enough can be a serious and often underestimated threat to travellers health. Heat exhaustion in particular is really common in many travellers who may not be used to the change in climates and either not drink enough or over exert themselves in tropical or desert climates. Heat exhaustion occurs when your levels of body fluids and salts run low after a prolonged period of time in the sun or intense heat and dehydration. The resulting decrease in blood pressure and volume will lead to symptoms such as hot/flushed skin, extreme tiredness or fatigue, a headache or dizziness, a rapid heartbeat and even nausea.
Children, pregnant women and the elderly as well as anyone with kidney or heart problems or diabetes are more at risk.
Heat exhaustion can be treated very easily. Anyone displaying these symptoms in the heat or sun should get into the shade or somewhere cool as quickly as possible and should drink plenty of water to hydrate themselves again. Use a cold compress, a towel or cloth soaked in cool (not cold) water on their skin, especially the back of their neck. Symptoms should disappear after half an hour or so and is not serious as long as it is caught in time.
Heatstroke on the other hand is considered a medical emergency and should be treated as soon as possible.
It can develop over time and extended periods of heat exhaustion, or very quickly if you are exerting yourself hard in the heat. Initial symptoms are more severe versions of symptoms of heat exhaustion, but will also include a higher temperature of over 40 degrees, heavy sweating that stops suddenly because your body doesn’t have the fluids to produce sweat, a rapid heartbeat and breathing and muscle cramps. Secondary symptoms such as dizziness, confusion, anxiety, communication difficulties and even hallucinations can be caused when the nervous system is affected.
Initial treatment of heatstroke is the same as heat exhaustion, cool the patient down, get them in the shade or somewhere cool and fan them if possible. Push fluids and get them to drink as much as possible if they are conscious. If possible shower them with cool water, or apply a cool flannel or facecloth to the forehead and neck and remove excess layers of clothing. Anyone suspecting heatstroke should also seek medical attention as soon as possible.
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