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How to avoid a health crisis while traveling abroad

Getting sick or injured can be scary. It may be even more overwhelming if it happens when you’re in another country. Here’s how to prepare yourself.

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Of course, you want some adventure when you travel to a far-flung destination — you just don’t want the kind that lands you in the hospital. But whether you’re backpacking in the Scottish Highlands or taking an African safari, health emergencies can happen.

Medical emergencies tend to be less common in places with a well-developed infrastructure, such as Europe, says Elizabeth Talbot, M.D., an infectious disease and international health specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

“Accidents—especially car accidents—are the most common cause of death among travelers,” she says. “But this largely depends on what you plan to do while abroad. Bungee jumping and high-altitude trekking are riskier than, say, a European garden tour.” If you’re traveling off the beaten path, though, you may be exposed to things like infectious diseases from consuming contaminated food or water. You may also be doing activities that you normally wouldn’t do at home.

Whatever the cause, the last thing you want on your dream vacation is a trip to the hospital. Here are some ways to prepare for your next big trip.

1. Check in with your physician

If you’re planning to travel abroad, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a physician who has expertise in travel-related medicine, especially if you’re going to a less developed part of the world.

Family doctors are great, says Dr. Talbot, but they may not be up to date on the latest health concerns around the world. Your best bet: a travel medicine specialist. “Practitioners maintain a high level of expertise in global diseases, tropical diseases like malaria, immunization science, and navigating the logistics of travel,” she says. “Plus, it’s difficult for many family physicians to stock some of the more exotic vaccines you might need.”

Vaccines are a big deal all the time—and even more so when you head overseas. “Taking an international trip is an opportunity to get up to date on immunizations,” Dr. Talbot explains. “Many adults aren’t adequately protected against pertussis, tetanus, or influenza, which may be more common abroad. Your travel medicine doctor will also consider your itinerary to help protect you against diseases like typhoid, meningitis, rabies, and yellow fever.”

Some of the most common vaccines you may need include:

  • Yellow fever, which you can get from a mosquito bite if you’re visiting Africa or South America. (Symptoms include fever with aches and pains, which can lead to severe liver disease with bleeding and yellowing of the skin.)

  • Typhoid fever, for Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. (Symptoms include fever, weakness, stomach pain, and headache.)

  • Hepatitis A and B. These liver diseases are found all over the world, especially hepatitis A, which you can get from eating or drinking unclean food or water. Symptoms include fatigue, nausea, and stomach pain.

    Hepatitis B, on the other hand, has both short- and long-term versions, and it can cause serious health problems, including liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and even death.

2. Stay active during your flight

If you’re going to be on an airplane for more than 6 to 8 hours, you have a higher risk of developing blood clots, since sitting for prolonged periods of time can cause blood to pool in your legs.

You can lower your risk by doing the following:

  • Stand up and walk around every couple of hours.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing.
  • Flex and extend your ankles and knees occasionally. Don’t cross your legs.
  • Wear knee-high compression stockings or socks, which gently squeeze your legs and help reduce swelling.
  • Skip the sedatives or alcohol. You might think that alcohol or certain drugs that make you sleepy will help you rest easier during your flight, but they can make it harder for you to get up and move around.

And if your trip involves scuba diving, you should wait anywhere from 12 to 48 hours (depending on the length of your dives) before getting on an airplane. Otherwise, you may be looking at a serious case of the bends, a type of sickness brought on by the difference in air pressure above and below the water.

3. Pack the right medications

Medications readily available in the United States may not be easily found in other countries, especially if you’re going to a remote location.

If you rely on prescription drugs, make sure you bring enough with you to last for the whole trip (and even a few days longer in case your return is delayed). Stow them in your carry-on bag—not in your checked luggage—and keep your prescription meds in their original containers, advises Dr. Talbot.

Be prepared with your everyday remedies as well. “Bring along the over-the-counter medications you might want to use,” Dr. Talbot says, “like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, sleeping aids, or antidiarrheal meds.”

Plus, your travel doctor may prescribe a just-in-case medication to help if you get sick while you’re away. “Sometimes a doctor will give you a prescription for an antibiotic you can take in case of severe diarrhea if you’re traveling to a place where it may not be easy to access medical care—or if your immune system is weak,” says Dr. Talbot.

And don’t forget important health documents, she advises, including “a list of your medicines and medical conditions” and proof of vaccinations.

Another tip: “Leave a copy of those documents with a trusted friend or family member back home, in case you lose any in transit,” Dr. Talbot says.

4. Invest in travel medical insurance

You may think you don’t need it, especially if you’re in good health and are not traveling to certain parts of the world. But whether you’re going to Mexico or skiing in the Swiss Alps, no one is immune to unexpected illness or injury.

Many health insurance plans don’t cover you when you’re abroad, and if they do, the coverage is often limited and requires you to pay at the time of service and get reimbursed afterward. This could lead to your having to spend thousands of dollars — a hassle no one needs when they’re traveling.

But travel medical insurance plans cover emergency medical health and dental costs, including emergency transportation costs. The plans also usually arrange the transportation for you, which is important.

“Travel health coverage can help you manage an unexpected illness, injury, or medical condition that needs to be treated urgently,” Dr. Talbot says. “It can even get you evacuated to receive specialized care.”

This article contains information that is not compiled by UnitedHealthcare or any of its subsidiaries. UnitedHealthcare does not represent all the information provided are statements of fact. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Hepatitis A." June 22, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hav/index.htm.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Hepatitis B Questions and Answers for the Public." July 28, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/bfaq.htm#bFAQa02.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Symptoms and Treatment." November 13, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/typhoid-fever/symptoms.html.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Symptoms of COVID-19." February 22, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Yellow Fever." January 15, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/yellowfever/index.html.

Cleveland Clinic. "What You Should Know About Compression Socks." October 19, 2020. Retrieved from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-you-should-know-about-compression-socks/.

Travel.state.gov. "You're Health Abroad." Retrieved from https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/before-you-go/your-health-abroad.html. Accessed January 7, 2022.

Uptodate.com. "Travel and Health Overview." December 9, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/general-travel-advice-beyond-the-basics#H1

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