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Adam McCulloch

10 health pitfalls to avoid while traveling

Rich or poor, no one can actually afford to get ill while traveling. Planes, trains, automobiles—and the destinations they service—are full of potential health hazards. Just answering the boarding call and observing the fasten seatbelt sign raises the risk of death by deep vein thrombosis or a killer flu. Of course, not all health pitfalls while traveling will buy you a one-way ticket to the hereafter. Most will just ruin your vacation. You'll almost certainly recover, but it may be just in time to endure the plane ride home.

Watch out for crazy drivers; don't forget to get up and stretch when you're on the plane; and for goodness sake, beware the fruit salad—some of these pitfalls may seem like no-brainers, but sometimes overlooking the littlest things can trip you up...
Adam McCulloch 10 health pitfalls to avoid while traveling Rich or poor, no one can actually afford to get ill while traveling. Planes, trains, automob...  more


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Created 07/02/08
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Don't Stay Still

Regardless of which end of the plane you're in, sleep never comes easily. Dr. Mulvehill suggests avoiding the temptation to overmedicate on sleeping tablets. "Don't try to sleep for a whole eight hours. If you wake up, walk around to stop the blood pooling in your lower legs or you run an increased risk of deep vein thrombosis. At least wiggle your toes and flex your muscles in your legs." His advice goes for children too: Dr. Jana claims that, contrary to popular belief, infants are not immune from DVT. For adults, aspirin before, during and after a flight will help thin the blood.


Don't Vaccinate Too Late

"Only about 30 to 40 percent of people who should be immunized actually are, " states Dr. Coward. Also, don't forget that many vaccines like hepatitis and yellow fever aren't active for two weeks or more so don't ask the doctor for a jab the morning of your flight. "What people need to realize is that most of the basic vaccinations, once you've had them, cover you for many years of future travel—yellow fever lasts ten years," explains Dr. Mulvehill.


Don't Overdo It at High Altitude

Coast dwellers swapping a surfboard for a snowboard should beware of vigorous sports after changing altitude. "No one listens," says Dr. Wroble. "They say, 'What are you telling me: not to ski?' If you go from L.A. to Colorado your blood is not used to higher altitude and won't be able to carry as much oxygen. Particular if you're older or not in good health, you should take it easy for the first couple of days."


Don't Test Your Meds on the Road

Using your body as a testing ground for a fistful of unfamiliar medication the moment you board the plane is a recipe for disaster. "In the past one possible side effect of malaria prophylaxis was that it caused terrible nightmares. They were very vivid and sometimes quite horrific nightmares. People couldn't tolerate them so they stop taking it," says Dr. Mulvehill. Start taking your meds before you leave so you can seek alternatives if you suffer side effects.


Don't Adjust Your Watch for Short Trips

It takes four to five days for East Coasters to adjust to West Coast time and vice versa. "Jet lag is the biggest travel health pitfall elite athletes face. When they head across time zones for just a couple of days, they don't even try to adjust," says Dr. Wroble. Changing routine for short trips can equal exhaustion in both directions. If your stay is brief—and only two or three time zones' difference—schedule activities on your own time zone (lest an 8 a.m. breakfast meeting actually feel like five in the morning).


Don't Ignore Your Mother

At 40,000 feet above the earth you're sharing recirculated air with 450 fellow passengers (even if, in theory, fresh air from outside can be brought in and reheated, in practice the cost of doing so means you can assume the cabin air isn't the freshest). Says Dr. Jana, "It's simply a numbers game—you're more likely to catch cold. Of the 50 people before you who used that moving sidewalk in the airport, twelve probably blew their nose and didn't wash the hands. For adults that means don't touch it—and for kids, don't touch or lick it. Wash your hands regularly to avoid transferring infection.


Don't Get Dehydrated

"The most overlooked health pitfall while travelling is dehydration," says Dr. Mulvehill. "In August most New Yorkers only go outside when they have to but tourists walk about all day in the heat. Make sure you drink bottled water, especially if you're in direct sun like on safari or standing in long lines," he says, adding that it's important to crack the seal in suspect countries to make sure the bottle hasn't just been filled with tap water.


Be Careful of Fruits And Vegetables

"After receiving vaccinations, people often make the mistake of feeling bullet-proof," warns Dr. Coward. "I tell people that 20 percent of staying healthy is getting the vaccination and 80 percent is following good food handing techniques." That means, for travelers heading to at-risk destinations, don't swallow shower water, don't brush in tap water, be wary of ice in drinks and (according to Dr. Mulvehill) whatever you do, watch out for fruits and vegetables, especially if you've bough it from a street vendor. "If you peel it yourself it's probably clean. If it's all cut up in a bowl it might easily have been contaminated by dirty knives and cutting board. No one considers fruit salad a danger, but it is."


Don't Forget a Doctor's Note

By all means decant your meds into a SMTWTFS pillbox but don't forget a note from your doctor describing exactly what differentiates the blue from the red ones. "If you're taking Vicodin you had better be ready to answer why you have it. If possible, carry the pills in the bottle that has the prescription taped to it along with your physician's number and address," recommends Dr. Wroble.


Never Mind Malaria, Avoid Dengue Fever

"I probably spend more time convincing people that they don't need anti-malaria medication than convincing them that they do. For many travelers taking malaria tablets is almost a Rudyard Kipling-style rite of passage. In reality people are almost five times more likely to contract dengue fever," says Dr. Coward, adding, "By far the most likely thing to injure a tourist overseas—and we're talking 60-70 percent of all injuries and ailments—is a motor vehicle accident. Be very careful of traffic and make sure you're adequately insured."

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