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Health Weekender: Going somewhere? 6 ways to stay healthy and safe

Consumer Reports News: July 31, 2009 08:12 PM

Whether your summer travel plans call for an international adventure or a road trip to the beach, we’ve got some tips to keep you and your family in good health.

Know the risks. Traveling to foreign countries can put you at risk of catching diseases that have been mostly eradicated in the U.S. Malaria and dengue fever, for example, are widespread in Africa and Latin America. And many cases of hepatitis A among American travelers are acquired in Mexico or Central America. You can check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to see what precautions you should take for the country you’re traveling to.

There are regional health risks within the U.S. as well. Lyme disease, for example, spread by ticks, is most common in the Northeast and north-central states, so travelers to those places should be especially cautio us when they’re outdoors. Most U.S. states have also seen cases of West Nile virus, spread by mosquitoes, so be sure to use insect repellent if you’re going outside.

Get vaccinated. If you’re going somewhere that has a risk of disease, talk to your doctor or a travel-medicine specialist about immunizations and drugs you should take with you, preferably a month to six weeks before you depart. You can find a travel specialist at the International Society of Travel Medicine. Also check to see if you're up to date on routine immunizations, such as shots for flu and diphtheria/tetanus.

Pack a medical travel kit. Be sure to bring a full supply of your prescription medicines—even more in case you are delayed or decide to extend your trip. Pack them in their original bottles in your carry-on bag if you are flying. If you have a serious medical problem or allergy, consider an alert bracelet. Also pack copies of your prescriptions, just in case.

Your emergency kit should have a first-aid manual, emergency contacts, basic medications (such as acetaminophen, or NSAIDs for pain or fever, antihistamines for allergies, motion sickness drugs, and stomach and anti-diarrhea medications), and sterile wound-care supplies. Other useful items include a flashlight, blanket, plenty of water, sunscreen, insect repellent, and extra eyeglasses or contact lenses, if applicable.

Road trip safety emergency kit Keep a roadside emergency kit. In this economic climate, many people choose to travel by car rather than plane—at least that’s my rationale for driving to New Hampshire and Maine for my vacation this year. But driving comes with its own set of risks. AAA predicts that more than 7 million motorists will be stranded this summer. So be prepared, pack emergency basics like a fire extinguisher, warning lights or flares, a tire gauge, a jack and lug wrench, tire sealant, spare fuses, jumper cables, hand cleaner, and perhaps most important for a car novice like myself, the number for roadside assistance.

For more on planning for a road trip, see our Cars blog.

Check coverage. Talk to your health insurer about emergency medical services when you're traveling, and consider special traveler's health insurance if you’re not fully covered. If you need to find a doctor abroad, call a hospital affiliated with a medical school, or contact the U.S. Embassy, a U.S. military base, or a Peace Corps representative.

Keep moving. When you’re stuck in a cramped seat on a long airplane ride, the lack of movement and change in air pressure can lead to a condition called deep vein thrombosis. Blood clots can travel through your veins and cause a life-threatening lung embolism or other complications. But airplanes aren’t the only culprits. A long ride in a car, bus, or train can also cause this.

To avoid this condition, which is more likely to happen to older people and those who are overweight or tall, wear loose-fitting clothes when you travel and keep well hydrated. Avoid caffeine or alcohol since they can be dehydrating. Stretch and move both legs while seated. And walk the length of the plane, bus, or train once an hour, or stop the car every hour and walk for several minutes.

Be alert to the symptoms of a possible leg clot for several weeks following a long trip: swelling of one leg that lasts more than a day or two, especially if accompanied by calf pain. Symptoms of pulmonary embolism might include cough, bloody sputum, or midback pain that becomes worse when breathing. Those symptoms warrant a prompt visit to your doctor or the emergency room.

Kevin McCarthy, associate editor

Prevent airplane ear and treat jet lag (subscribers only). And before you plan an outdoor trip, take a look at our sunscreen survey and see our new sunscreen Ratings (subscribers only). 


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