Don’t let these common travel illnesses put a damper on your plans
By Krystle Maynard, DNP, RN
As fun and exciting travel can be, there can also be risks to your well-being, depending on where you travel. And even with the best intentions, we may catch a cold or a virus before or during travel.
What illnesses can you get while traveling? In this blog post, we’ll look at common travel illnesses that may occur because of the location or climate during your journey and what you can do to stay healthy. Most of these illnesses are not life-threatening but can put a damper on your vacation enjoyment.
Altitude sickness occurs when we experience a rapid shift in air pressure and oxygen levels at high elevations. People who have been hiking may have encountered feelings of nausea, dizziness or a headache, all of which are signs of altitude sickness. You don’t have to climb mountains to experience this; sometimes, people get altitude sickness when they travel to areas at higher geographical locations.
It’s common for people to experience any of the following symptoms up to 24 hours after traveling to a high altitude:
- Feeling tired
- Difficulty breathing
Luckily, there are a few things you can do to try to prevent the complications of traveling to a high altitude or to better help the acclimatization process. Some interventions for this type of travel illness include the following:
- Stay hydrated
- Steer clear of alcohol or tobacco
- Pace yourself; refrain from excessive physical activity on the first day you arrive at your destination
- If you are climbing, stagger your climbing distances each day and allow for rest periods
- Ask your doctor about acetazolamide as a prevention medication
- Pack ibuprofen to have on hand in case you start experiencing headaches
Sometimes, if not caught and treated early, the decreased oxygen caused by higher altitudes can cause brain swelling, referred to as high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). If someone in your group starts to exhibit any of the following, it’s imperative to get them to the closest healthcare facility:
- Coordination loss
- Not feeling “right”, sick-appearing
- Confusion or disorientation
While waiting for help to arrive or traveling to the closest hospital, move toward lower altitudes and, if available, give dexamethasone or bottled oxygen. (Though these are not items that people generally have on hand, if traveling with a group or tour, they may have a kit on them in case of emergencies.)
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Bug-related travel illness
Before traveling, research specific geographical locations known for illnesses caused by insect bites. Malaria, dengue, zika, Lyme, and others can be spread by ticks, fleas, and mosquitos. Prevention strategies may be necessary if the area(s) you are traveling to is known for these illnesses. You may need to get required vaccines and/or medications before visiting some destinations, while basic bug spray may be sufficient in others.
Foodborne/waterborne travel illness
Traveler’s diarrhea is precisely what it sounds like and is relatively common. Paying close attention to the food and drinks you plan to consume is vital for prevention, as is frequent hand washing.
During travel, there is often a question about whether drinking water is safe, but some forget to consider ice as a potential culprit. Be mindful of your food; it may be best to avoid the buffet. Remember to hydrate if you believe you may suffer from traveler’s diarrhea. Some medications may also be helpful.
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Heat-related travel illnesses
Though it may not happen commonly, developing heat stroke or other heat-related travel illnesses can occur when traveling to specific destinations. Warning signs of a heat-related travel illness may include hyperthermia (high body temperature), rapid heart rate, and confusion. Here are a few tips to prevent heat-related illness:
- Stay hydrated
- Protect yourself from damaging UV rays by wearing hats and sunglasses
- Don’t forget your SPF!
- Strategically plan outdoor activities at cooler times of the day when possible
- Allow yourself to take breaks
It’s not uncommon for people to get a little motion sickness in \car and on amusement park rides, but did you know it can also happen during other forms of travel? For some, the type or amount of movement they experience can feel different than what their inner ear recognizes; this causes motion sickness. As a result, people may feel dizzy, lightheaded, nauseous, and even vomit, all symptoms that make travel less appealing.
If you are someone who experiences motion sickness (or perhaps you have a child or other family member who does), here are a few tips to help avoid those unpleasant travel illness symptoms:
- When traveling by plane, opt for a window seat
- Choose a seat in the front of vehicles
- Drink the recommended daily amount of water; staying hydrated can help reduce symptoms
- Pack snacks so you can eat small amounts of food in frequent increments
- Think of activities that may work as a distraction
- Purchase hard candies, such as peppermint or even ginger-flavored
- Speak to your doctor about a prescription scopolamine patch or look into over-the-counter medications, such as Dramamine (these may cause drowsiness)
Physiological effects of air travel
Your body will likely experience physiological changes when flying regardless of your destination. These changes result from the increase in altitude when traveling by airplane. Below are some of the effects of airplane travel that may occur:
- Shortness of breath or tiredness due to the airline pressurizing cabins, resulting in less oxygen consumption
- Feeling dehydrated, as even your skin can feel dry due to the humidity level changes that occur
- Ears feeling full due to the pressure changes in the air; you may experience “popping,” which is the body’s way of trying to level itself out
- Bloat due to pressure changes, as the gas you may already have inside can expand while flying, thus making you feel more bloated
As you prepare, the potential for jet lag is something to consider if you are traveling across various time zones. This common condition occurs due to the misalignment of your body’s circadian rhythm, or internal clock. Symptoms may include difficulty concentrating, poor sleep, gastrointestinal symptoms, and fluctuating moods. As a preventative measure, it is best to start adjusting your sleep schedule a few days before you travel.
For more tips to reduce the effects of jet lag or avoid it altogether, click here.
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Prevention of common travel illnesses
As you think about travel, consider planning your adventures by partnering with a AAA Travel advisor, who has expert knowledge of your destinations. The best part is that you can book a AAA travel agent even if you aren’t a AAA member.
If you opt to plan your itinerary yourself, be sure to familiarize yourself with your destinations, customs requirements, banned medications, and where to locate the embassy in those destinations.
There are numerous strategies to implement that can vary depending on your method of travel and destination. For example, if traveling by plane, some pro tips to consider may include the following:
- Wear compression socks and reposition frequently (this decreases your risk of blood clots that occur on any form of long-distance travel)
- Pack gum to help with the increased ear pressure
- Opt for a window seat
- Opt for healthier food options and skip the greasy fast food
- Pack hand sanitizer or wipes
- If you have any indication that you or others around you may have allergies, a mild cough, etc., be courteous to others and wear a mask
If you are going on a cruise, packing essentials (for health and well-being) may include the following:
- Sunscreen (pay attention to your port destinations, as some forbid certain types of sunscreen)
- Passport (though this may not be required to cruise, should any medical emergency occur while in another country, a passport can be a lifesaver during those times)
- Prescription medications
- Over-the-counter medications that you may need (Benadryl, Dramamine, Tylenol, Lomotil, etc.)
- Any necessary medical supplies needed for chronic conditions
- First aid kit or supplies
- Insect repellent
- Insurance cards
Luckily, if you forget something, you can access most first aid supplies, sunscreen and over-the-counter medications (a select variety) on cruise ships. Another bonus feature about cruises is that many have an infirmary with medical staff on board. Their staff receive training to manage many common injuries and travel illnesses, though, in true life-or-death emergencies, they will call for backup.
Traveling can be magical, allowing you to visit countless new places and discover diverse cultures and foods. The last thing we ever want to consider is emergencies during vacations, but they can happen. Not only should you carry a passport (even if not required for some travel), but purchasing travel insurance is also highly beneficial. AAA Washington travel insurance partner Allianz can give you the peace of mind you didn’t know you needed.
—Written by Krystle Maynard, DNP, RN. Maynard is the creator of Innovative RN Solutions and has been a nurse for over a decade. She has specialized in medical-surgical and critical care nursing, in addition to having a long-standing history of being an adjunct faculty member for a college of nursing. She lives in Kentucky with her husband and children, and her two favorite hobbies are traveling to various destinations (mainly beaches) and concerts.
—Top photo: AdobeStock
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Destinations.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, September 1). Warning Signs and Symptoms of Heat-Related Illness.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, January 28). Motion Sickness.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, May 3). Travelers’ Diarrhea.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, May 11). Avoid Bug Bites.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, October 6). Heat Illnesses.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, October 6). Jet Lag.
- Cleveland Clinic. (2018, December 14). 6 Ways Airplane Travel Affects Your Body + How You Can Prepare.
- NHS. (2020, March 13). Altitude sickness.
Travel Planning Tips
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