Travel Vaccines and Medications: What You Need To Know Before Packing Your Bags

Today, international travel to exotic locales is common – so much so that international travel is increasing every year. It’s estimated that Americans make over 400 million trips to other countries annually. And increasingly more are traveling to developing countries.

But all of this international travel means Americans are bringing home more illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 15 million Americans per year become ill as a result of travel. And only a small fraction of travelers seek health advice before traveling abroad.

Travelers who want to stay healthy just need a little advice. With the right recommendations and medical knowledge, you can protect yourself before heading to the airport.

What Vaccinations Do I Need Before Traveling?

Did you know that you might need certain vaccinations before leaving the U.S.? Many people don’t realize it, but our standard vaccine schedule doesn’t cover many diseases that are common in other areas of the world.

That’s why you should see a physician before leaving for a trip. This is especially important if you’re going to a developing country, a country that requires vaccinations to enter its borders, an exotic or remote locale, or high altitudes. It’s also crucial if you have chronic diseases that could be affected by travel.

Before you head abroad, your vaccinations must be personalized according to your immunization history, the countries you’ll visit, the type and time span of travel, and your departure date. Ideally, you should see a physician well-versed in travel medicine 2 to 3 months before you depart.

This allows plenty of time to complete any routine, required, or recommended vaccinations. For example, the cholera vaccine is a live, weakened vaccine that’s administered as a single oral liquid dose – and it must be given at least 10 days before you travel to a cholera-affected region.

If you do need vaccinations, your doctor will be able to determine what’s best for your upcoming travel. Travel vaccinations generally fall into 3 categories:

  1. Routine: These are typically childhood vaccinations that should be updated or boosted. Routine vaccinations may include vaccines for hepatitis B; influenza; measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella; pertussis; poliomyelitis; and tetanus and diphtheria.
  2. Required: Any vaccines that are legally necessary to enter certain countries.
  3. Recommended: These vaccines vary depending on the risks of exposure at your travel destination. Recommended vaccinations may include vaccines for cholera, tuberculosis (TB), tick-borne encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis, rabies, meningococcal disease, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, yellow fever, typhoid fever, and traveler’s diarrhea.

High-Risk Locations That Require Special Vaccinations

If you’re traveling to certain countries, you may need special vaccinations. That’s because these destinations place you at a high risk for catching certain diseases.

High-risk locations typically require special vaccinations for travelers. These include the yellow fever vaccine, which is required for entry into certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South America (including Brazil), and the meningococcal vaccine, which is required by the Saudi Arabian government for all pilgrims visiting Mecca for the Hajj or Umrah. Additionally, Belize does not allow cruise ship or airplane passengers to disembark without yellow fever vaccination.

These required vaccinations are subject to change. As more people travel to different regions, different diseases can become higher-risk. That’s why you should always consult a physician for proper up-to-date vaccinations before traveling.

What Medications Should I Pack When Traveling?

Many well-prepared travelers pack a travel health kit to combat the annoyance of minor health problems while away from home. This is a great idea – in fact, everyone should pack a travel health kit in their carry-on luggage.

A basic travel health kit should contain:

  • Adhesive tape, bandages, and sterile gauze or dressing
  • Insect repellent and/or bite treatment
  • Lubricant eye drops
  • Antihistamines and/or nasal decongestants
  • Oral rehydration powder
  • Simple analgesics (e.g., ibuprofen, acetaminophen)
  • Scissors, safety pins, and tweezers
  • Sunscreen
  • Thermometer (oral or rectal)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Over-the-counter medications for colds, heartburn, and motion sickness

If you’re traveling to certain destinations, you may want to add these extra items:

  • Medications for pre-existing medical conditions
  • Antidiarrheal medication
  • Antifungals or antibiotics that target the most frequent infections
  • Antimalarials
  • Sleeping medications or sedatives
  • Mosquito nets and insecticide (like DEET) to treat fabrics
  • Condoms or oral contraceptives
  • Sterile syringes or needles
  • Water purification filters or tablets

No matter where you’re headed, you should pay special attention to one very common disease that affects travelers: traveler’s diarrhea.

Traveler’s diarrhea is by far the most common health risk for travelers, especially those visiting developing countries. If you’re heading to Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia, you’re at a high risk for this condition. The CDC estimates 12 million individuals develop traveler’s diarrhea annually, usually within the first week of travel.

If traveler’s diarrhea does happen, you can treat it if you’re prepared. For mild symptoms, bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol) is excellent. For moderate to severe symptoms, antibiotics (fluoroquinolones or azithromycin) may be needed. You can get these from your physician by request, or you may find them over-the-counter in some countries.

Tips to Avoid Getting Sick When Traveling

Want to avoid any health problems while away from home? With a few precautionary steps, you can set yourself up for success every time you travel.

Good hand hygiene is one of the first foundations against illness. If the water quality at your destination is unknown or questionable, use hand sanitizer – one with at least 60% alcohol content – before eating or drinking.

The old adage “boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it” also remains true today. Fruits and vegetables are usually safe if they can be peeled and eaten. Foods from street vendors should be avoided.

In general, consumption of tap water, especially in developing countries, should be avoided unless you want “Montezuma’s revenge” (traveler’s diarrhea). Drink bottled water instead. And make sure to skip any ice made from tap water, and raw foods rinsed with tap water. You can also keep in mind that boiled water, drinks made from boiled water (e.g., tea), bottled sodas, and beer and wine are usually safe.

As increasingly more people travel worldwide, the risk of travel-related illness gets higher. That’s why it’s important to schedule a consultation with a healthcare professional before you leave the country. A doctor’s consultation before traveling can reduce your risk through preventive counseling and education, medications, and vaccinations.

It’s highly recommended that pretravel care be rendered by physicians who hold a certificate in the field, such as one provided by the International Society of Travel Medicine [ISTM] or the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene [ASTMH]. Before you start packing your bags, make an appointment with a medical professional. It could help you enjoy a happier, healthier vacation.

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May 23, 2019