How to Stay Healthy in Your Travels – A Nurse’s Advice

Travel Health

Guest Post by Marianne Marfleet

Travel has always been my passion.

I went into nursing with the idea I would become a travel nurse.

But life happens — marriage, mortgage, children, divorce, taxes. . . well, you get the picture. In my forties, I became purposeful about travel.

My first serious travel involved surgical mission trips. From there I budgeted specifically for trips and eventually began escaping the Canadian winters.

Unfortunately, unexpected illness can put a serious dent in the best-laid travel plans. While you can’t protect yourself against every illness you might encounter on your travels, you can prepare for the most common traveler’s ailments.

Based on my years of vacation travel and living in Panama and Mexico, I’ve put together a basic travel medication kit.

Note: This article is not intended to endorse any particular brand nor is it a substitute for medical advice. Also, it is only a list of some available medications and therapies. (Always consult your physician or pharmacist to check the compatibility of your prescriptions with over-the-counter (OTC) medications.)

Healthy Travel Tip #1: Packing

Make sure prescription medication is in your hand luggage so it’s easy to access.

Plan ahead to deal with common ailments which can strike even before you reach your destination. Pain, nausea, motion sickness, vomiting, diarrhea, and minor allergies can occur any time during your journey. Anxiety, fatigue or over-indulgence of unfamiliar foods or beverages can contribute to unexpected symptoms.

These are very uncomfortable and inconvenient problems to have in a confined space.
Carry enough of each medication to get you to your destination. The remaining OTC medications can go into your checked luggage since they are easily replaced at a local pharmacy (in case your luggage goes astray).

Healthy Travel Tip #2: Pain medication (analgesics)

As much fun as travel can be, seating is often tight and cramped. Joint and muscle stiffness, arthritis pain and headache are a common side effect. Be sure not to exceed the recommended dosage. If you are prone to stomach upset, take with food. Some examples are:

  • Acetaminophen – a nonaspirin pain reliever (also known as Tylenol, Paracetamol, Panadol)
  • NSAIDs (Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs) -– Ibuprofen (aka Advil, Motrin)
  • Acetylsalicylic acid (ASA aka Aspirin, Bufferin). Do NOT give ASA to Children
  • Naproxen (aka Naprosyn, Aleve)

Healthy Travel Tip #3: Nausea & Vomiting (Antiemetics)

Occasional, mild cases of nausea and vomiting can be treated effectively by limiting food until the symptoms pass. Sipping an electrolyte drink (Gatorade, PowerAde, Pedialyte) or a flat cola drink can often relieve nausea associated with an acid stomach or indigestion. Cola is slightly alkaline & balances the pH; stir it until the bubbles are gone. Below are some examples of OTC antiemetics. (If the symptoms persist for more than 24-48 hours, seek medical attention.)

  • Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine, Gravol)
  • Bismuth Subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol)

Healthy Travel Tip #4: Motion Sickness

Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting caused by motion are related to nerve fibres of the inner ear. Place this skin patch 12 hours before you travel — it’s effective for up to three days.

  • Scopolamine / Hyoscine (Transderm-V, Transderm-Scop, Scopace)

Wanna Go Naked?

In some places around the world (including in some of the world’s top overseas retirement havens), health care can be so cheap that it can make more sense to pay for it as you go… rather than insuring against it.

We call it “going naked,” and, like everything else to do with health care and health insurance overseas, it’s not nearly as terrifying an idea as it may at first seem.

Take a look here.

Healthy Travel Tip #5: Diarrhea (Antidiarrheal)

Food and drink can be the source of many gastrointestinal problems. Always familiarize yourself with the quality of the drinking water. If not potable, stick to bottled water and stay away from ice cubes, salad (often washed with unpotable water), street food, unpasteurized dairy products and fruit juice.

People have interesting theories about diarrhea. As a result, they sometimes wait too long to start treatment. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance can occur quite quickly. If diarrhea lasts 6 hours or more, therapy should be initiated. If there is a fever or blood in the stool, or if diarrhea persists after 48 hours, seek medical attention.

  • Loperamide (Imodium)
  • Bismuth Subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate)
  • A basic oral rehydration therapy solution can be prepared when packets of oral rehydration salts are not available. Use 6 level teaspoons (25.2 grams) of sugar and 0.5 teaspoon (2.1 grams) of salt in 1 liter of water (WHO & UNICEF guidelines)

There are two other options for treating and preventing traveller’s diarrhea, before leaving home.

  1. Get a prescription (from a physician or travel health center) for a Fluoroquinolone (commonly known Ciprofloxacin [Cipro], Ofloxacin, Norfloxacin, and Levofloxacin). You take 2 tablets daily for only 3 days (and often feel better after one or two tabs). Do not take if you are allergic to Sulfa drugs.
  2. DUKORAL® – a drinkable vaccine which does not need a physician prescription. Dukoral prevents enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC)-diarrhea. A full immunization requires 2 doses orally (by mouth) taken at least 1 week (up to 6 weeks) apart, with the last dose taken at least 1 week before travel.

Healthy Travel Tip #6: Allergies (Antihistamines)

It is hard to avoid some insect bites, even with a good DEET repellant. Learn the signs and symptoms of the local mosquito-borne diseases like Dengue Fever, Zika Virus & Malaria.

Many bites are not life threatening but simply annoying (ants, common mosquitoes, bed bugs). The itchy, swelling bumps are aggravated by scratching and can even get mildly infected (fingernails are an excellent source of bacteria). In most cases a simple application of household vinegar or Calamine lotion can relieve the itch. An OTC anti-itch cream works well, too (Benadryl Cream, Gold Bond Rapid Relief, Aveeno Anti-Itch).

For extremely itchy bites an OTC oral antihistamine can relieve the itch and prevent scratching (so you can sleep) at night. Check the label to see if the preparation will make you drowsy (before you drive).

  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • Chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton)
  • Brompheniramine (Dimetane)
  • Cetirizine (Zyrtec)
  • Clemastine (Tavist)
  • Fexofenadine (Allegra)
  • Loratadine (Alavert, Claritin)

Some flying and crawling insects can give you a serious and possibly life threatening reaction (scorpions, killer wasps, bees, spiders, etc.). The localized reaction is very red, painful and swollen. These bites may not be fatal but it is wise to get to a hospital for an antidote or to confirm you are not having an allergic reaction. Before going to the hospital, apply an ice pack to the area and take an oral antihistamine (Benadryl is very good here).

Hopefully you’ll arrive at your destination in good health. If, however, you find yourself in unfamiliar territory where access to a health professional is inconvenient, be prepared to treat yourself.

When you have these basic medications on hand, you’ll save yourself a trip to the pharmacy or even the hospital. Before buying these medications at home, make sure they have a long expiry date so you can keep your unused product for future trips and replace as needed. Safe travels.

About the Author

Marianne Marfleet

Prior to becoming a freelance copywriter, Marianne enjoyed a successful career as a Registered Nurse in the Edmonton, Alberta area. She ended her healthcare service as a Certified Clinical Perfusionist at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. She is an active community service volunteer for the Canadian Cancer Society, the St. Albert Seniors Association, Meals on Wheels and the Airport Volunteer Ambassadors at the Edmonton International Airport. In addition to vacation travel and mission trips to Ecuador, Brazil, Laos & China, Marianne has practiced spending her winters in Phoenix, Panamá and Mexico.


You might also enjoy these articles about expat health:

  1. Why US Expats are Obsessed with Healthcare
  2. Better Healthcare Abroad – for Less
  3. Top Options for Health Care and Health Insurance Overseas

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