Getting sick during or gap year or contracting some form of disease is always a possibility when travelling the world. It’s just a natural part of life. The trick to dealing with these situations is knowing how to recognise the symptoms and how to deal with them. This article will tell you what you need to know and what to do if you develop some of the more common travel illnesses.
There are plenty of extremely common problems that many backpackers and long term travellers come across at some point, and in the vast majority of cases these won’t be anything serious. Here are just some of the more common ailments, and advice on what to do if you develop symptoms whilst on your travels.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
There is quite a lot of information = or more accurately misinformation – peddled about this condition, usually by the companies trying to flog you those DVT socks (which are wholly unnecessary by the way). Basically DVT occurs when blood clot forms in the veins due to prolonged immobility. This most commonly occurs in your lower legs on flights due to the long periods of sitting down and the extremely cramped conditions you are forced to endure in economy class. Most blood clots are basically reabsorbed into the body, but there is a small chance one may break off and travel to the lung causing a pulmonary embolus. These severe effects are why many people are concerned about a DVT, but it is important to remember that unless you are at risk anyway, have circulatory or heart problems for example, then it is highly unlikely you will have any problems.
What to do?
The DVT socks that many people buy for air travel have not been conclusively proven to have any benefit whatsoever for the general traveller. Compression therapy after a DVT is a clinical treatment, and requires professional assessment, fitting of compression bandages and monitoring and may be required for up to two years in conjunction with other anticoagulation treatment. This is a world away from sticking an expensive sock on while you are in the air.
Remember, unless you are at risk anyway, have circulatory or heart problems for example, then it is highly unlikely you will have any problems. If you do have other health problems, see a medical professional before you fly.
The best thing to do on long flights is to simply get up and move around regularly, once an hour for example, just to stretch your legs and muscles. Even when you are sat down performing static stretches or isometric muscle compressions (basically try and move and stretch your legs and feet as much as possible) in the limited space you have will help prevent DVTs. Drink plenty of fluids and stay hydrated, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco will also help.
Insect bites and stings.
Backpackers encounter a huge variety of tiny little creatures on their travels that are only too happy to take a bite out of them. The majority such as bedbugs, ticks and leeches are thankfully relatively harmless beyond mild pain and an annoying itch. Bee and wasp stings are just annoying and a little painful, unlessof course you are allergic to them. The biggest problems come from biting insects that carry disease, such as mosquitoes. These horrible insects can carry everything from malaria to dengue or chikungunya to zika.
What to do?
Prevention is better than a cure in most cases here. If you stay in certain hostels or budget hotels where hygiene seems to have taken a holiday, sleep on top of an open sleeping bag or a travel sheet placed over the bed may save you from a few bites.
Insect bite prevention is the key here. If you aren’t bitten, you aren’t likely to contract any disease. Wearing loose cotton clothing that covers the skin and is secured at the right points (your boots/socks and waist) will help to prevent any bites from leeches or ticks if you are out trekking through terrain where they are known to reside (especially in warm, damp weather). For additional protection, liberal use of DEET spray is highly recommended. Sprays containing 35% DEET is usually best, and can last for up to 6 hours. Natural alternatives to DEET are popular amongst many backpackers and do work, but are generally not as effective or for as long so may need to be reapplied more often. Citronella based products are not as effective in many areas.
If you do get bitten, then you are likely to suffer little more than an extremely annoying irritation and itch over the site of the bite and maybe a small lump or even a weal, which is a small fluid filled lump and is very itchy. A cold compress will ease the discomfort in the short term along will painkillers such as ibuprofen which will also help to reduce any swelling. For more specific bites, especially if you have a number of them, antihistamine tablets or cream will help, or a steroid based cream such as hydrocortisone for more severe, painful bites.
This is a common problem for backpackers who cross a series of time zones, especially those who do so in a relatively compressed period of time. Jet lag occurs when your natural circadian rhythms are interupted, disrupted or messed with entirely by entering new time zones, the bigger the time difference, the bigger the effect. Common presentations include extreme fatigue, insomnia, malaise or even nausea.
What to do?
The only thing you can do to minimise the effects of jet lag is to stay well hydrated during travel, eat light, healthy meals (as much as is possible on a flight anyway), and stay clear of alcohol. When you arrive try and expose yourself to sunlight as early as possible and readjust your schedule for meals and sleep as quickly as you can. This may involve trying to stay awake longer than you normally would to sleep at your relatively normal bed time. Giving yourself at least a couple of days to acclimatise in any new country is always a good idea.
Sexually Transmitted Infections.
Sexually transmitted infections,or STI’s, sometimes more commonly referred to by the outdated term STD, are prevalent throughout the world in some form or another. Many backpackers during the course of their travels will engage in sex, either with locals or more commonly with other backpackers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and no one can tell you not to go and enjoy yourself. However, you should be careful and protect yourself. Many STI’s do not have any signs or symptoms at all, and some can have extremely serious, if not fatal consequences if left untreated.
What to do?
Protect yourself! Use a condom. That should go without saying. If you do have unprotected sex and develop any strange lumps, bumps, rashes, itching or pain at any point, then go and seek medical advice at the nearest facility as soon as possible.
This is very common, particularly amongst first time travellers to hot, sunny climates, and can be very painful indeed. The last thing you want to do is miss out on that trek or that activity because you are sat in your room feeling sorry for yourself!
What to do?
Prevention is the name of the game here, get in the habit of applying sun cream regularly. You really don’t need one with a massively high SPF factor as long as you keep applying it regularly. Studies have shown this is often the best approach, especially if you indulge in activities like swimming which will wash the cream off. Many people do forget to reapply it, and I admit I have been guilty of this myself more than once. If you do get sunburnt then an Aloe Vera based cream will help immeasurably.
Known colloquially by a variety of names from Delhi belly, Bangkok belly, Montezuma’s revenge, the runs or a wide variety of less salubrious sounding monikers, this is an extremely common condition that affects the vast majority of backpackers at some point in their travels. It is most commonly caused by infectious agents such as bacteria from a variety of sources, usually local water or food washed in it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the bacteria in and of itself most of the time, locals are more than used to the tap water for example, it is simply that many backpackers stomachs have never been exposed to it before.
Diarrhoea is defined by at least 3 watery bowel movements in a 24 hour period, with the presence of one or more further symptoms ranging from nausea, vomiting, cramps or simply feeling generally unwell. A mild form of diarrhoea is very common, where one loose watery bowel movement is passed, and then the symptoms pass and normality resumes.
What to do?
Stay hydrated. That is the first thing to do. Rehydration salts or solutions are great for heavy instances as they also replace other things that are lost through loose stools such as salt and electrolytes as well as fluids. However in most cases drinking plenty of water as well as nibbling on certain foods such as toast or bananas (even if you don’t feel like eating) is sufficient. Rest is also important and you should try and relax until symptoms have passed. On a practical level, if you have the chance it may also be more comfortable and convenient for you to check into a private room with an en suite as opposed to a dorm with a shared bathroom. It won’t cost all that much extra for one night, and good guesthouse or hotel staff can keep an eye on you and send up extra bottles of water or supplies as needed. In many cases, you will be absolutely fine the next day.
In more severe or more persistent cases, antibiotics administered as a single day dose can kill the bacteria quickly. However, despite the advice in some guide books, and many backpackers propensity to carry antibiotics ‘just in case’, it is not recommended that antibiotics be used as prophylaxis in this way unless the infection is more serious or parasitic in nature, and the antibiotics are clinically prescribed, usually this will be Norfloxacin or Ciprofloxacin over a period of 3 to 5 days. Clinical evidence suggests that it is much better to adhere to preventative measures such as hygiene and staying hydrated and allow the disorder to resolve itself.
Antimotility agents such as Loperamide, more commonly known as the nickname ‘stoppers’, are not recommended for treatment as such, but can be handy in certain situations if used for minimal periods, such as a train or plane journey, and the body is allowed to pass the infected organisms through the gastrointestinal system when you reach your destination. These should not be taken at all if you have blood in your stools or you are running a high fever, in these cases you need to seek medical assistance.
These are just a few of the more common illnesses, ailments and health concerns that plague travellers. There are of course many more. If you need advice on anything that isn’t covered here then please feel free to check out my extensive travel health section on the blog, or have a one to one chat with a qualified nurse in my online travel clinic.