Passport? Check. Boarding pass? Check. Photo ID? Check. Vaccinations? Oops!
Travel is exciting, but serious illness quickly puts the brakes on a fun vacation. Yet in the flurry of pre-travel activity, many people don’t add a doctor’s visit to their trip preparation checklist.
A visit with your primary-care physician or a travel medicine specialist should occur at least a month prior to overseas travel to ensure that you’re vaccinated properly before leaving town. “In the St. Louis area, there are a number of places, either linked to hospitals or private practice clinics, where you can get travel advice and vaccinations,” says Dr. Jonas Marschall, a specialist in infectious diseases and travel medicine who sees patients at Washington University Physicians’ International Travel Clinic. In addition to receiving destination-specific vaccinations, all travelers should be up-to-date on standard vaccines, including the flu vaccine, prior to departure, he notes.
Travel medicine is a relatively new subspecialty that arose in the 1980s “when it became clear that there was a need for preparing travelers in a professional way for their trips,” Marschall says. Although there are no formal residency or fellowship programs for physicians to become board-certified in travel medicine, the International Society of Travel Medicine offers a Certificate of Knowledge, and Marschall earned a diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene from the University of Liverpool, one of numerous programs worldwide that offer special training.
Malaria is among the top concerns of travel medicine specialists. One of the most serious diseases that travelers can contract, malaria is spread through mosquito bites in tropical destinations, such as Africa and Southeast Asia. Various strains of the disease exist, and some types are more dangerous than others, says Dr. H. Thomas Johnson, a SLUCare family physician who earned a travel medicine certificate. However, he says malaria is preventable if proper precautions are taken in the form of a pre-travel antimalarial drug and mosquito bite prevention.
“DEET (the active ingredient in many insect repellants) is what you want to use to prevent mosquito bites. We recommend it for malaria prevention,” Johnson says. “(DEET) works the best, and as long as you don’t swallow it, just putting it on your skin is fine,” he adds, regarding any safety concerns about the chemical.
Whether traveling abroad or within our own country, Johnson reminds travelers to make sure they carry all prescribed medications in quantities that will last throughout their journey. Individuals who have chronic conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, must prepare in advance to continue their medication regimens and should check with their physician regarding any other special precautions or activity guidelines.
Those who have allergies or asthma should pack emergency remedies, including EpiPens and inhalers, says Dr. Kevin King, a Mercy family medicine doctor in Kirkwood. Other helpful medications include Benadryl, Pepto Bismol, an over-the-counter pain reliever/fever reducer like Tylenol, hydrocortisone and antibiotic ointment.
Beyond medications, all travelers should pack first-aid supplies including bandages, gauze pads, alcohol wipes, and sterile solution for flushing foreign objects from the eyes. Sunscreen and insect repellant also are important items to include in a travel health kit.
Anyone who anticipates being active during vacation needs to guard against dehydration by carrying “water, water and more water,” King says. In addition, high-protein snacks provide energy, and a hat helps protect against sun exposure and wind burn. King also advises travelers and non-travelers alike to reapply sunscreen frequently, especially when swimming or sweating.
A final recommendation from the experts is to check your health insurance policy for specific guidelines regarding coverage for emergencies and medical care away from home. If you do not have adequate coverage, it’s a good idea to purchase a travel insurance policy. Knowing that you are covered in case of an emergency can help put your mind at ease so you relax and enjoy your trip.