Updated September 12, 2014.
Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.
News of drug-resistant tuberculosis on airplanes and bird flu in Asia has caused many a traveler to succumb to bouts of paranoia while visiting faraway destinations. Whether your trip is for business or leisure, most people don’t want or need to go to the extreme of eliminating travel altogether. But aside from drenching yourself in Purell and wearing a face mask wherever you go, there are several smart choices you can make to limit your chances of exposure to harmful microbes.
Tips for staying healthy when traveling
- Use bottled water in areas where the water source is questionable. Water can be contaminated with infectious microbes that cause cholera and other gastrointestinal and diarrheal diseases. It’s not just important to drink clean water, but to also use it for brushing your teeth and washing fruits and vegetables before eating. Other options are: boiling, chemical disinfection, and filters (see CDC website for how best to use these techniques).
- Know the risks associated with your travel destination. Depending on where you go, your risk of getting certain infections will vary. For example, you’re not too likely to get African Sleeping Sickness if you’re headed to Canada. To find out which infectious disease risks are associated with your travel destination, the CDC has a website which includes health information for travelers to a variety of diseases. Your medical provider can also help with this.
- See your healthcare provider before you travel. The CDC recommends making an appointment with your doctor 4 to 6 weeks before you travel. Your doctor will provide you with vaccinations and medications recommended for your travel destination. Keep in mind that each destination will have different recommended vaccinations, and some may not have any.
- Wash your hands frequently. Even for non-travelers, frequent hand washing is probably one of the most effective ways to prevent infection. If your travel destination lacks clean running water suitable for hand washing, use an alcohol-based hand gel or wipe.
- Bring insect repellent. Many infectious diseases that are endemic to developing countries are spread by insects. These diseases include Malaria, Dengue, West Nile Virus, and Yellow Fever, just to name a few. In selecting an insect repellent, choose one that uses DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) as its active ingredient. DEET is known to be safe and effective, and it is currently the only repellent that effectively protects against the mosquitoes that cause malaria. Along the same lines, be sure to pack long sleeves and pants for daytime wear and insecticide-treated bed nets for night.
- Be up-to-date on current events. Following the news can save you a lot of headaches when it comes to avoiding travel-related infections. For example, if there’s news of an outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in the UK, don’t eat beef there.
- Find out whether or not your insurance policy covers you abroad. Of course, this tip may or may not apply, depending on your travel destination, but if you are going somewhere that has modern healthcare practices, you may want to consider purchasing a short-term insurance plan that specifically covers travel.
Lastly, don't forget your sunscreen and if you're intending to enjoy the single life, always keep a condom or two in your wallet.
Questions and Answers about Travelers’ Health. CDC. July 30, 2008