Travel Sickness: how to prevent 5 travel-related health problems

With friends in Corsica.

Jeanine Barone is a travel, food and design writer based in New York City. She specializes in hidden treasure travel, seeking out sights that are under the radar. Her work appears in dozens of magazines and newspapers, including National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure and the Boston Globe. Because she also has a medical background, she carries a very impressive first-aid kit as well as an extensive knowledge of how to help prevent and treat all manner of ailments that may occur on the road. Her blog is J The Travel Authority.

I travel all over the world. And nothing can ruin a trip more than illness or discomfort.

I’ve been on hikes where folks didn’t drink enough water and ended up becoming quite sick with potentially life-threatening heat stroke. On other trips that involved wilderness hiking or visits to developing countries, members of my group developed traveler’s diarrhea because they drank contaminated water.  Then there are ski trips where my friends fly from sea level to high altitude only to lose their appetite and develop a blinding headache, or worse.

So, whether I’m hiking in Phoenix when the thermometer reads 105° F; wandering on trails in the Adirondacks where poison ivy grows aplenty and where the water flowing in clean-appearing rivers can be laden with the parasite, Giardia; skiing at altitude in Colorado at Arapahoe Basin; or preparing for a trip to India, I always make sure that I’m prepared.

Here are some key health problems you can encounter on your travels, and my recommendations on how to prevent them.

Poison Ivy Prevention and Treatment

If you’re going to be in places where poison ivy is found, apply IvyBlock, a lotion that prevents the skin irritation caused by poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, should you brush against these plants. 

If your skin has already been in contact with any of these plants, try Tecnu, a product that stops the rash from spreading and it also reduces the itching as well.

Gut Problems

I always carry a Steripen, a small device that emits UV rays to quickly decontaminate water from all manner of organisms, including Giardia.

If you expect to be traveling in developing countries or wherever traveler’s diarrhea is common, you can prevent diarrhea by taking two Pepto-Bismol tablets before each meal and two at bedtime every day of the trip — though, not longer than three weeks. (If you have any chronic medical conditions, like kidney disease, or are taking other medications, talk with your physician first.)

Before I travel to developing countries, I ask my doctor for a prescription for Cipro, an antibiotic that you can take for diarrhea that’s caused by bacteria. The indication for taking Cipro is if you’re experiencing frequent diarrhea and you also have vomiting, nausea, cramping, fever or blood in the stool. But if your symptoms last longer than 72 hours, you should see a doctor.

Should you become ill, you can reduce the number of times you have to visit the bathroom because of diarrhea, by taking Imodium AD, which is available over the counter and even comes in a chewable form.

I also carry powdered oral rehydration packs that you can mix with water to provide necessary minerals and sugar that you lose when you have diarrhea and/or vomiting, and it also gives you some necessary calories. You can purchase these packets online or in most pharmacies and in many large outdoor sporting goods shops.

Cycling in Sarnia

Ticks and Mosquitos

To protect yourself against ticks that can carry Lyme disease or mosquitoes that can carry malaria, use an insect repellant that contains 30% to 50% DEET. I like Sawyer Controlled Release because of its all-day effectiveness.

To avoid ticks, wear light-colored clothes, tuck your pants into your socks, and check your clothes and skin for ticks during the day. 

If you’re planning to travel to countries where malaria is found, check out the CDC website so that you’ll know if your itinerary is taking you to an area where malaria is endemic, and which medications you specifically need to prevent becoming infected.

There are several different drugs that are used to prevent developing malaria, should a mosquito bite you. But each has to be started way before you start your trip. You’ll have to choose from among three medications — Lariam, Malarone or doxycycline — each with a different price, set of side effects, and length of time you need to take it.

As an added precaution, use a Permethrin-containing spray on your clothing, bedding and mosquito netting that hopefully you have secured around your bed. You can also buy insect-repellant clothing that’s impregnated with permethrin.


Altitude Sickness

If you live at or near sea level and will be traveling even to 2,500′ but especially 5,000’+, you may develop altitude sickness even if you’re fit and healthy. Typically, you may become dizzy, have trouble sleeping, feel tired or nauseated, lose your appetite or develop a headache.

To reduce the likelihood of suffering altitude sickness, give yourself time to adjust to higher altitudes by ascending slowly to your destination. That means, for example, staying two days at 5,000′ before moving on to your final destination at 8,000′. And going above this means you should stay at least three days at 8,000’ before going higher. Schedule rest days, drink plenty of fluids, avoid alcohol, only exercise lightly at first, and avoid tranquilizers and sleeping pills.

If you’re going above 12,000′, you should ask your physician for a prescription for Diamox, a diuretic, which can prevent altitude sickness if you take it before you arrive at high altitude, but it can also help you recover from some high altitude symptoms.

Heat-Related Illnesses

Drinking plenty of fluids (not alcoholic ones) is the chief way to avoid succumbing to heat stroke or heat exhaustion. But you still should be able to recognize the signs of heat stroke: your heart is pounding, you have a headache, your skin is hot and dry and you may be nauseated. 

Hiking or cycling at the hottest time of the day, not drinking frequently, wearing dark colored clothes that don’t breath all contribute to heat-related illness.

It’s easier to sip water frequently if it’s easily accessible. (Remember, if you’re feeling thirsty, it means you’ve already lost substantial amounts of fluids.) So, I always use a CamelBak, which allows me to comfortably carry large quantities of water on my back or waist, and suck water from a tube that’s literally rigged along my shoulder.

  • corse@Séminaire corse

    I did not know this trick to wear light-colored clothes against ticks. Thank you I will test the board during my next trip :)

  • corse@hotel4etoiles

    I also suffer from altitude: migraine and vertigo. But there are great treatments to heal

  • Scott

    As a frequent third world traveler I would suggest/add not to jump on the antibiotic bandwagon too quickly. I find that it takes my body a couple of days to a week to acclimatize to new foods, water, air, whatever I’m ingesting. I come from a medical family and have it ingrained in me to let my body come to terms with some of this new stuff organically, naturally. The point each of us reach before taking Cipro/et al, is up to us. But I always like to give my body the first crack at it. Almost three years in India alone, not to mention Pakistan, China, Tibet, Nepal, Indonesia, Malayasia, and I have never been sick. Some bumps and hiccups, of course, comes (for me) with the territory. But nothing BIG. Ever. I’ve been Blessed . . . or something :)

  • Soniat

    I recently learned that I am allergic to Cipro. Always good to check before going to a remote area.

  • solotraveler

    Thanks Maryann. That’s a very important tale to share and valuable recommendation about the local pharmacist.

  • maryann

    I would add one caution re: Cipro, based on personal experience.  While it is generally effective, it is not always.  When I travelled in Peru, I developed diarrhea while trekking to Machu Picchu despite being very careful about what I ate and drank.  I had Cipro with me, but it was ineffective against that bug so I had to see a doctor when I got to a town 3 days later.  By that point, I was pretty sick.  He gave me a different antibiotic that worked right away and as it turned out, it was available in the local pharmacy (also liquid electrolytes, which were important).   Now when I travel, I do check the local pharmacy in country and try to find out what they recommend having on hand, especially when I’m going into the wilderness. 

  • Spinster

    Great to know.  Shared.

  • solotraveler

    Thanks. I hope it helps you and many others.

  • merr

    I’ll bookmark this post. Lots of useful info on things that can be preventable. Thanks so much!

  • Donna Hull

    Great, practical tips for avoiding travel-related illnesses. I once ate barbecue lamb on a cruise excursion in South America. The next day, I watched from the bed in my room as the ship sailed beside a progression of glaciers on the way to Ushia. Now I carry Imodium AD.

  • Kris @ Attainable Sustainable

    That Steripen looks like it could really save a traveler some trouble!

  • solotraveler

    Hi Melanie, thanks for adding more valuable information.

  • Melanie Haiken

    Great info here; I too love the SteriPen, so easy to use. For poison oak, rampant in my area, I rely on identifying it and avoiding it, then dousing with Tecnu, since I’m wildly allergic. Is IvyBlock reliable? You don’t mention bedbugs, which I write about frequently; the best prevention is checking beds carefully and keeping clothes in plastic bags rather than unpacking.

  • solotraveler

    Thanks so much for adding to the discussion.

  • Alexandra Grabbe

    I wrote down these suggestions. I would simply like to caution readers that alternatives to DEET do exist. It is a toxic chemical that you should not put on your skin, in my opinion. I buy organic bite locker Xtreme Insect Repellant and save the DEET products for my shoes. Also, beware of ticks when sitting down to rest. I have noticed that they have a tougher time attacking a moving object, so I try to keep moving. That Peremetrin is a wicked chemical, too. You don’t want that anywhere near your skin …

  • Vera Marie Badertscher

    Great down-to-earth tips to keep you on your feet. On my last trip, I inadvertently used a delicious cough drop that contained a sugar substitute that caused diarrhea. When I finally thought to look at the fine print (in French) it warned me! Next stop Bruges, where a pharmacist said, oh yes, we also carry Immodium, just like in the U.S. Only it turned out it was not as strong. Live and learn.

  • Sheryl

    Thanks, Jeanine,for all these wonderful first-aid tips. You certainly have a well-stocked arsenal!

  • solotraveler

    Good suggestion Victoria. Thanks.

  • Victoria

    I went to Belize and ate at a local BBQ chicken and smothered local salsa all over it… unaware that they make their salsa with habanero peppers! Consequently I would suggest always know what you are eating so that you can understand how your body will react because it is not worth loosing the time on your vacation!