Travel health is an important issue for any backpacker heading off on their gap year adventures, but it is also one that so many people neglect. Here are the top 10 health mistakes every traveller makes, and how you can avoid making the same mistakes yourself.
Every traveller knows that getting all your travel health care needs taken care of before you step on the plane is essential and many do make these all important preparations. Despite this there are so many travellers who still neglect this essential part of the planning process and make fundamental mistakes on their round the world adventures that can adversely affect their health. This list will give you a good idea of the mistakes to avoid.
Not travelling with important medical details.
This is a huge mistake the absolute majority of travellers make, and it is one that is so easily sorted. If the worst happens and you need urgent medical attention then there are a variety of things that the medic treating you would find useful. Do you have a past medical history?Do you have any known allergies? What’s your blood type? What vaccinations are you up to date with? Are you on any current medication?
Odds are you won’t need it at all, but a large part of being prepared is preparing for the worst. A simple list that takes a few minutes to type up and can be kept with your passport for emergencies can be a real life saver.
Not having a clue what your insurance actually covers you for.
Okay so you’ve bought the policy, begrudgingly handed over your hard earned cash for it and you’ve set off on your round the world adventure. That’s great. But do you actually know what you are covered for? And more importantly what you aren’t? Read all the fine print and make sure you get adequate travel insurance cover for all the activities you might want to do on your trip. The last thing you want is to break your leg whilst horse riding or diving into that cenote, only to be stuck with a huge medical bill when you find out your policy excludes those activities.
Not researching the available medical care at your destination.
No one expects the average traveller to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every clinic and pharmacy in a 50 mile radius, but it is a good idea to do a little research before your trip and have a general idea of what medical facilities are available and roughly where they are. Ask yourself if you could easily get to them in an emergency and what standards of care are available. This becomes even more necessary if you are travelling significantly off the beaten track or with existing medical conditions and may need to plan your trip around adequate care needs.
Not washing your hands.
I know, it’s disgusting, but a great many people just don’t wash their hands, and that can lead to a whole host of problems.
Enterotoxigenic E. coli,Shigella, Entamoeba histolytica, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Giardia, Cryptosporidia, Cyclospora, not to get too technical here, but these are just some of the organisms that are spread via the fecal/oral route. And yes, that is exactly how it sounds.
Good hand hygiene is essential to stop the spread of infection and can dramatically reduce your chances of diarrhea, vomiting, food poisoning, gastroenteritis, flu, norovirus, MRSA, or even hepatitis A. So just do it. Carrying hand gel with you is a great back up in an emergency (you aren’t going to be able to wash your hands everywhere) but it isn’t in any way a replacement for good old soap and water.
Thinking that a suntan is a good thing.
Sunbathing is one thing I’ve never really understood, sitting around in the sun to quite literally burn your skin out of nothing more than vanity? I don’t get it. Quite apart from the pointless narcissism it can have serious health implications too.
You may think a little sun is harmless, but sunburn happens a lot more easily than many people think so be sensible, use sunscreen, cover up, and stay hydrated.
Current recommendations on sun protection say you should use a minimum of factor 15, though I recommend at least SPF 30.
Protecting yourself from the sun goes beyond getting bad sunburn though. You should also stay well hydrated if you are traveling in a country or region with a hot or tropical climate, as well as cover up with loose clothing and even a hat or scarf. If you don’t then dehydration can set in very quickly and that can lead to more serious conditions such as exposure, heat exhaustion, and even heatstroke, which if left unattended can become a medical emergency.
Drinking to excess.
You’re on holiday. A trip of a lifetime. I get it. Have a drink, have a good time by all means. No one is saying you shouldn’t. But just be reasonable. Don’t drink so often it becomes the norm and don’t get so drunk you have no clue what you are doing. Apart from the fact that getting so drunk can greatly increase your chances of having a serious accident or injury (I could tell you some great stories from A&E), alcohol in large quantities can compromise the body’s immune system and have a long term affect on your physical health.
Running yourself ragged.
This is such a common problem amongst newbie backpackers and travellers, especially inexperienced ones. I understand that you may only have a limited amount of time on your trip, and I get that you want to fill that time with as many awesome sights and experiences as possible, but by trying to fit everything into an ultra tight schedule you will run yourself into the ground, make yourself exhausted and probably get ill from it too, as exhaustion and tiredness can have a huge effect on the immune system.
Make sure that you have a relaxed itinerary, with a lot of free time to be flexible on when and what you see and do, and you will enjoy your trip a lot more and even see more things in the process. More importantly you will remain relaxed, rejuvenated and relatively stress free! Always a good bonus.
Not resting enough.
Closely related to the above point, most travellers don’t leave enough time in their itinerary to stop and rest somewhere if they do get sick. Odds are that at some point on your travels – especially on long trips or gap years – you will get sick at some point, most commonly with an upset stomach or travellers diarroeah. If you do it is important that you stop, rest and take care of yourself for a day or two until you are better. Carrying on because you have to reach a destination by a certain date or you really don’t want to miss out on that must see location will make you feel worse in the long run and will delay your healing time. If you are ill, just take a few days to yourself just like you would at home, get yourself a cheap private room with a bathroom and allow your body to get better.
Not taking antimalarials.
As a nurse I advise people on taking antimalarials all the time, and one of the biggest problems is the huge amount of misinformation and fear there is surrounding this issue. The big problem is, there are a huge number of people who don’t take them based on these rumours and misinformation, and that can potentially be very serious.
Knowing when they are necessary and when they are not is essential, and a lot of different factors have to be taken into consideration. Very basically speaking, if you are travelling to any area that is considered a high risk for malaria (and not every area is) then antimalarials are usually strongly advised. If you are visiting an area that is a low to no risk, then antimalarials aren’t usually advised. It isn’t always that cut and dry though, when you speak to a health professional (and you should), they will assess you on a wide range of factors, including:
- The level of risk in your destination.
- The time of year you are traveling.
- Whether there are any current outbreaks.
- How long you are staying in any high-risk areas.
- What you will be doing (spending extended time in rural areas or cities, spending time near bodies of water; other high-risk factors.)
- Your personal medical history.
- Past experience with antimalarials.
If you are advised that antimalarials are necessary and right for you on an particular trip, then it is important to follow that advice. All it takes is one bite from an infected mosquito for you to contract the disease, and if you do contract it the consequences can be potentially fatal. Just don’t take the risk.
Not getting the right vaccinations.
Vaccinations are one of the basic health considerations every traveller needs to take care of, and one of the most common concerns that people ask my advice on in my capacity as a qualified nurse. Because everyone is an individual with individual needs, there is no simple one-size-fits-all answer, however, there is one universal constant: If you can protect yourself, it is a good idea to do so. Prevention is always better than the cure, and nothing is better at protecting you from the risk of getting a disease than being vaccinated against it. So if the vaccination is available, you are advised that it is needed by a professional, then why wouldn’t you protect yourself?
Remember, taking a little bit of time to consider these important preparations before you travel can save you a lot of hassle, inconvenience and even harm in the long run. Travel health is never worth ignoring.
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