Rich or poor, no one can actually afford to get ill while traveling. Planes, trains, automobiles — and the destinations they service — are full of potential health hazards. Just answering the boarding call and observing the fasten seatbelt sign raises the risk of death by deep vein thrombosis or a killer flu. Of course, not all health pitfalls while traveling will buy you a one-way ticket to the hereafter. Most will just ruin your vacation. You'll almost certainly recover, but it may be just in time to endure the plane ride home.
Watch out for crazy drivers; don't forget to get up and stretch when you're on the plane; and for goodness sake, beware the fruit salad — some of these pitfalls may seem like no-brainers, but sometimes overlooking the littlest things can trip you up.
Dr. Joseph Mulvehill, M.D., a New York-based physician who specializes in travel medicine, notes that "people often transpose their own healthcare template onto that of the country they're visiting." In essence travelers assume things will be quick and easy — this is rarely the case. No one wants to waste precious time seeking out a suitable doctor, followed by hours holed up in a waiting room, just for the sake of an impromptu examination or prescription. "Travelers from comparatively clean countries like the U.S. are far more likely to fall ill," says Dr. Mulvehill. "We live in a relatively germ-free world, so when we travel our bodies react far quicker to the different bacteria."
Don't hesitate, vaccinate.
With today's board meetings just as likely to be held in Calcutta as Cincinnati, it's no surprise that frequent flyers are increasingly mindful of the world's more exotic illnesses. Beyond passport control is a host of diseases like yellow fever, rabies and Japanese Encephalitis that we rarely come in contact with on home turf. Occasionally the eradication programs themselves can trip up unwary souls. "Some countries demand a certificate of vaccination against yellow fever before they grant entry," says Dr. Mulvehill. "If you don't have it they might force you to be vaccinated right there in immigration."
A common misconception is the idea that high thread-count and a concierge can protect against Montezuma's Revenge. "Remember, behind the façade of a luxury hotel, the conditions under which your food is prepared might not be five star," warns Dr. Randy Wroble. As team physician for the Columbus Blue Jackets, he's had a lot of experience keeping elite hockey players performing at their peak. He suggests if you want to be absolutely sure of your stomach, take your own food or only eat American-style — but, really, where's the fun in that?
Even non-athletes need to be on their game on the road. There are unfamiliar cities, timetables to decipher, scams and hucksters and myriad opportunities to slip up. "It's doubly important for parents to stay alert," claims Dr. Laura Jana M.D., a pediatrician and co-author of "Heading Home With Your Newborn." "As an adult traveling with children, you have to be able to make decisions and be in charge. Sleeping pills may help you nod off but you're less likely to know if your kids are lost or having an asthma attack or something," she says. When it comes to children, good planning will reward everyone with greater sanity. "It's best if the primary care giver plans the trip and packs for the kids. That way they're more likely to take into account those really small, seemingly insignificant, details. They can become a really big deal when no one gets any sleep because baby's favorite blanket wasn't packed," she says.
Common sense counts.
In compiling this list of ten health pitfalls we consulted doctors for whom staying healthy while traveling was very much their business. Their advice had the ring of common sense but — like much good advice — these points were exactly the kind of tips most commonly ignored. The ten health pitfalls they identified are not serious buzz kills. No one suggested canceling that skiing holiday or holding back a spontaneous round of bungee-jumping. After all, travel is about being open to new experiences and taking a few calculated risks. Often the pitfalls they identified seemed small but could snowball into bigger things. For example, breaking a leg on the slopes of Colorado may seem like a fluke accident but, for a skier who lives at sea level, it may have been the altitude difference that marred their judgment and took the pep from their step at that crucial moment. Bring that high-altitude attitude to the great outdoors.
According to Dr. Michael Coward, an Australia-based travel doctor who overseas the health of many workers heading for remote duties, "People frequently ignore pre-existing conditions. If you're diabetic you'll continue to be diabetic. If you're pregnant you'll continue to be pregnant. Travel with your condition in mind."
Our entire panel felt that getting loaded on a plane was a really dumb idea but it wasn't just for the blinding hangover you'll face on arrival. Dr. Mulvehill identified dehydration as the most important pitfall that all travelers should avoid. "Kids especially need to be hydrated," agreed Dr. Jana. "When you get off routine it's easy to forget to give your kids something to drink and, because they're smaller, they dehydrate quicker." For big, small, young and old, avoiding these ten common travel pitfalls will see you making the most of your R&R and you'll be far less likely to return home medicated to the eyeballs.