How to avoid disease and injury while traveling abroad

Consumer Reports News: June 06, 2012 09:38 AM

Here's a sobering statistic to keep in mind this summer: One in five Americans who take a trip out of the country suffer an illness or injury while abroad. Follow our tips for avoiding the most common travel woes so you return home safe and sound.

Be informed. Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's free 2012 International Travel Yellow Book to find out about recommended vaccinations, notices about diseases, and other tips for staying healthy during your travels. In some countries, you should avoid tap water and ice cubes, and instead drink bottled or boiled water or canned or bottled carbonated drinks. Food prepared with unsafe water should also be avoided.

Bring your own meds. A month before you leave, see your primary-care physician to get any recommended vaccinations and address other travel-related health issues. If you take prescription medications, make sure you have enough to cover the length of your trip. Counterfeit medications are common in some countries, so avoid buying drugs while traveling. Instead, bring with you all of the medications, including over-the-counter drugs, that you think you will need during your travel (and carry them with you during your flight in case your checked luggage is delayed).

Take the right malaria meds. Health officials are concerned about a possible rise in malaria, yet less than half of U.S. residents who travel to high-risk malaria regions bring the necessary medication. Check whether the country you're visiting poses a malaria risk at the CDC's website.

Your doctor can prescribe the inexpensive, generic antibiotic doxycycline to protect you from contracting the malaria parasite. Atovaquone/proguanil (Malarone or generic) is another option, but it is more expensive. Skip mefloquinine (generic only; it was previously sold as Lariam but this brand-name formulation has been discontinued) since it can cause serious psychiatric side effects.

Other precautions to prevent mosquito and other bug bites include using insect repellents that contain 30 to 50 percent deet and wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants at night. Ask your doctor about using insect repellents on children. See our insect repellent Ratings.

Stretch on the plane. Plane flights longer than 8 hours can increase the risk of dangerous blood clots. To help reduce your risk while flying, drink plenty of fluids, wear loose-fitting clothing, and get up from your seat and stretch your legs and arms at least once an hour.

Protect your skin. Sunburn is a common risk in the summer months. To protect yourself from the sun's rays, use water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Check out our sunscreen buying guide for the best options.

Avoid injuries. Tourists are 10 times more likely to die of an injury than an infectious disease. Motor-vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in U.S. citizens traveling abroad, so always wear a safety belt when driving or riding in an automobile at your destination. Hire a local driver who is familiar with the roads and traffic laws, if possible. Do not ride with a driver who has been drinking, and avoid overloaded buses.

Wear protective gear. Drowning is the third leading cause of death in U.S. residents visiting foreign countries, so wear life jackets while boating, waterskiing, or doing other water activities. Avoid swimming in waters with large waves or strong rip currents. Also, don helmets and other safety gear when biking, rappelling, or undertaking other potentially risky activities.

In addition to medical emergencies, there are other perils that can sideline your travels, including natural disasters or political upheaval, so is travel insurance a good idea? Maybe, if there are gaps in your auto, health, life, or homeowners policies. But buy wisely. For more see Do you need travel insurance?

Steve Mitchell

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