Learn common health problems people have on vacation and how to prevent them
By Kate Houck, RN
When planning for a vacation, the most exciting elements of the trip come to mind—like booking tickets, packing, and researching activities. However, it’s also essential to consider the potential health problems you may face. Vacations are the perfect opportunity to relax and have fun, but they can also increase your chances of experiencing health issues. Below, we will explore the most common health problems people have on vacation, what to do if you experience them, and how to prevent them.
What are the most common health problems people have on vacation?
Often, when thinking of the potential health risks of travel, country specific-diseases may come to mind. However, the most common health problems people have on vacation are not so exotic.
According to the World Health Organization, environmental factors cause most travel-related health problems people experience while traveling. Altitude changes, sun exposure, heat, insects, and food or waterborne illnesses are the culprit for many potential health risks. No matter where you travel, you or someone in your travel party may face one or more of the following health problems:
- Sunburn is a prevalent issue for vacationers. Many people expect sunny weather when traveling to the tropics, but sunburns are also common in cloudy and snowy locations. Be sure to pack and wear sunscreen and reapply per the directions on the bottle. Consider wearing UPF-rated clothing and hats to block sun exposure.
- Blisters are the enemy of any traveler who plans to walk a lot on their trip. We’ve all had one—they are small but can bring your vacation to a halt, literally. Rubbing from footwear, mixed with sweat from activity and heat, causes the top layers of skin to rub away, leaving behind a painful wound. Treat these with a bandage or moleskin dressing so you can return to your activities ASAP.
- Heartburn may be a familiar health problem you experience at home. Unfortunately, it won’t rest just because you’re on vacation. Whether you are trying new foods that trigger acid reflux or if this is a chronic issue, heartburn can run the spectrum from mild annoyance to stopping you in your tracks. Be sure to pack antacids in your suitcase so you’re ready for this health problem if it appears. If you didn’t pack anything, visit a local pharmacy for supplies.
- Many of us vacation to sunny locations because we enjoy the weather or visit stunning parks to experience the great outdoors. Unfortunately, something else loves these places, too—bugs. Insect bites are another familiar issue travelers encounter, including pesky mosquito bites and troublesome spider bites. If you experience bug bites while traveling, using anti-itch cream may be necessary to decrease the unfortunate effects. If your bug bite becomes swollen, hot, and hard, or if you experience hives, shortness of breath, or difficulty swallowing, seek medical attention immediately.
- Insomnia and jet lag are well-known by frequent travelers. Difficulty sleeping can happen when you are in a new and strange location or travel across time zones. Set the mood for sleep by darkening your room, using a white noise machine or app on your phone, turning on a loud fan, and staying off backlit screens an hour before bed.
- Diarrhea is the most common health problem people have on vacation. Food poisoning or bacteria transmitted in contaminated food or water are often the cause. If you experience diarrhea, drink plenty of clean water to stay hydrated, and consider eating bland, dry foods such as the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apples, toast). Seek out a healthcare professional if you also experience bloody stool.
What can you do to prevent yourself from getting sick while traveling?
Now that we’ve covered some of the most common health problems people have on vacation, let’s talk about what you can do to stay healthy. There are several basic things you can do while traveling to limit your risk of experiencing typical traveling ailments.
- Take universal precautions. This step includes good hand washing and using hand sanitizer, especially after interacting with high-touch activities or environments. When washing your hands, scrub for the amount of time it takes to sing the ABC song in your head, rinse from wrist to fingertip, and then turn off the sink using a paper towel. It’s a good idea to keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your travel bag for instances when you cannot access a sink and soap.
- Prioritize getting enough sleep. While you may be tempted to stay up late and wake up early to experience as much vacation as possible, burning the candle at both ends is a stressor to your body and increases the likelihood of other health issues.
- Drink clean water. Avoid contaminated water by purchasing bottled water or only drinking from a known clean water supply. This precaution is crucial for some international travel destinations and backcountry camping but is a good rule of thumb to follow anywhere. Work with a AAA Washington travel agent or utilize the Centers for Disease Control website for information about locations where contaminated water may be an issue.
- Eat fully cooked foods to ensure you do not contract food poisoning. While undercooked meats or seafood may be delicacies, there is a risk involved with indulging in these culinary delights. Eating only fully cooked and properly handled food will prevent diarrhea and other gastrointestinal upset symptoms. If you decide to eat an undercooked or raw meal, do so only when you know the food was handled properly in a clean kitchen.
- Wear sunscreen and insect repellent. Protect yourself from sunburns and bug bites by taking this precautionary step. As discussed earlier, you can experience sunburn even in snowy or overcast environments. Also, depending on your travel destination, this will help you avoid mosquito-borne illnesses.
- Wear well-fitting shoes to avoid foot problems such as blisters. This is not the time to wear brand-new tennis shoes—only bring well-broken-in footwear that you know is comfortable for lots of walking. You’ll have the added bonus of less discomfort in your feet and legs throughout the day! You may also consider putting moleskin dressing on skin that frequently rubs against your shoes to prevent blisters from forming.
- Lastly, consider a destination without associated infectious diseases and easy access to healthcare. Travel is fun when you’re prepared, but it does come with a few added points to plan around. Depending on your needs, traveling to more familiar locations is worth considering.
What should you do if you experience symptoms of these health problems while on vacation?
You can do a few things to make life easier if you experience any of the common health problems people have on vacation. A little preparation will go a long way to keeping you healthy or at least get you back into your exciting travel plans as quickly as possible.
The number one thing you can do to help deal with health problems on vacation is to make a plan ahead of time. If you’re working with a AAA Washington travel agent, talk with them about locating clinics in the area you’ll be traveling. Plan transportation to and from urgent care facilities, walk-in centers, and emergency rooms. Know where to find a pharmacy to buy over-the-counter treatments or prescription medications. Having an idea of what you will do in the event of illness or injury will help you navigate the actual event if it occurs.
Depending on your vacation, you may need to utilize clinics on a cruise ship, urgent care facilities in a new town, or a first aid clinic at a campground. Be prepared for these encounters by knowing your medical history and the medical histories of your traveling party. Keep an up-to-date list of prescription medications for those with chronic health issues in your group. This way, you’ll be ready for any common health problems that may arise.
Don’t let health problems keep you home
Preparation and knowledge are key to enjoying any trip despite the common health problems people have on vacation. You now know how to decrease your chances of illness and injury and how to heal quickly if you experience one. Use this information to plan a smoother vacation with as few bumps in the road as possible!
—Written by Kate Houck, RN
—Top photo: AdobeStock
Kate Houck is a L&D nurse with 9+ years of experience in OB, lactation, school nursing, and pediatrics. She has a passion for taking care of families and helping new nurses be the best they can be.
Searching for information for travelers with chronic illnesses? To learn more about staying healthy while traveling and flying with medical conditions, as well as traveling with chronic illness, click here.
- Centers for Disease Control. (2023, February 15). Travelers’ health. Accessed April 4. 2023.
- Cirino, E. (2022, July 13). Can you get a sunburn on a cloudy day? Healthline. Accessed April 2, 2023.
- John Hopkins Medicine. (2023). Traveler’s Diarrhea. Accessed April 1, 2023.
- Webb, J. (2019, May 1). Bad bug bite? When you should see a doctor. Banner Health. Accessed on April 4, 2023
- World Health Organization. (2020, April 28). Health risks when travelling. Accessed on April 2, 2023.
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