When families are able to travel, it can be a wonderful time of exploration and bonding. Don’t let illness get in the way. Many locations have diseases that you don’t typically see in your home town. Take a little bit of time to learn what you need to do to prepare for your vacation. Insurance doesn’t usually cover travel medicine, so be sure to consider these extra costs when planning a trip.
Keep track of everything
It is a great idea to take pictures of everyone each morning in case someone gets separated from the group. Not only will you have a current picture for authorities to see what they look like, but you will also know what they were wearing at the time they were lost.
Take pictures of your passport, vaccine record, medicines, and other important items to use if the originals are lost. Store the images so you have access to them from any computer in addition to your phone in case your phone is lost.
Have everyone, including young children, carry a form of identification that includes emergency contact information.
Create a medical history form that includes the following information for every member of your travel group. Save a copy so you can easily find it on any computer in case of emergency.
- your name, address, and phone number
- emergency contact name(s) and phone number(s)
- immunization record
- your doctor’s name, address, and office and emergency phone numbers
- the name, address, and phone number of your health insurance carrier, including your policy number
- a list of any known health problems or recent illnesses
- a copy of current medications and supplements you are taking and pharmacy name and phone number
- a list of allergies to medications, food, insects, and animals
- a prescription for glasses or contact lenses
Prepare everyone for local specs
Learn what the local healthcare options are if someone in your travel group gets sick or injured. For several tips, see this travel information from the CDC.
Find out how you can use your phone overseas. Be sure to bring a charger that will work with local electrical outlets.
If you’re traveling with young children, plan ahead for where they’ll sleep. Infants will need a safe place of their own with a firm surface. Everyone will need time to adjust to new time zones.
Vehicle safety risks vary around the world. Know local travel options and risks. Only use authorized forms of public transportation. For general information, see this International Road Safety page. Learn local laws prior to traveling.
If you’re going to be somewhere above 8000 feet above sea level, prepare for the change in altitude with these tips.
Be sure to talk with your teens about drug and alcohol safety prior to travel. Many countries have laws that vary significantly from the United States, and some teens will be tempted to take advantage of the legal nature of a drug or alcohol.
Remind everyone to stay in groups and to not venture out alone.
Dress appropriately for the area. Some clothing common in the United States is inappropriate in other parts of the world. Americans are also at risk of getting robbed, so do not wear things that will make others presume you are a good target.
Wear sunscreen! It doesn’t matter if you’re on the beach or on the slopes, you need to wear sunscreen every time you’re outside. Don’t ruin a vacation with a sunburn. For sunscreen tips, see Sun and Water Safety.
For more safety tips, see this helpful brochure.
Prevent bug bites
Mosquitos, ticks and other bugs not only cause itchy rashes but they can carry diseases. Using insect repellant properly can help to prevent getting bit.
Use insect repellent with at least 20% DEET to protect against mosquito and tick bites. Follow package directions and reapply as directed. Do not use combination bug sprays with sunscreen. They should be applied separately.
Wear long sleeves and pants. Consider treating your clothes with permethrin and tucking your pants into your socks. Sleep in areas that are screened against bugs.
Extra vaccines may be needed when you travel, especially in infants who are too young to get a measles vaccine on our usual schedule and adults who have not gotten vaccines that are now on the regular schedule.
Before you travel you can look at destination-specific advice on the CDC’s Destination page.
The news routinely reports outbreaks of measles these days. Many of the US outbreaks are related to an unvaccinated person returning from abroad. The MMR protects against measles, mumps, and rubella.
While our standard vaccine schedule does not recommend the MMR until 12 months of age, the vaccine can be used in infants as young as 6 months. It is considered safe to use in infants, but we don’t know when their immunity from their mother goes down. If the maternal immunity is still active the vaccine won’t work. This immunity typically falls between 6 and 12 months. After 12 months the vaccine is more likely to be effective, so when the risk is lower, it is recommended to wait until that age for the vaccine.
Between 6 and 12 months of age the MMR is recommended for infants considered high risk for being exposed to measles. This is because if their immunity has fallen, we don’t want them to be unprotected. International travel is considered to be high risk. If your baby’s maternal immunity is still high, the vaccine won’t provide protection, but he or she is still protected until that maternal immunity falls.
Because we don’t trust that the vaccine is effective before a year of age, babies who get an early MMR will still need two after their first birthday.
Talk to your baby’s pediatrician about getting the MMR if your child is over 6 months of age. Ideally it will be given at least 2 weeks prior to travel to give the body time to develop immunity.
Both hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccines are now on the routine schedule for children in the US, but many adults did not get these vaccines as children. These vaccines are recommended for travel to many locations. Verify if your family has had both hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccines before you travel.
It is recommended that infants start hepatitis B vaccines at birth. The series is completed at 6-9 months of age. There are catch up schedules for those who haven’t completed the series on time.
Children do not get the hepatitis A vaccine until 12 months of age on the standard US schedule, but they can get it as early as 6 months if they will be travelling internationally. If they have not yet started the series and they are over a year, they can start at any time. The booster is given 6-12 months later. (This section edited 12/2019 due to newer recommendations.)
It takes at least 6 months to complete each of these series, so plan early!
Typhoid is not a vaccine routinely given in the US but it is recommended for travel to many parts of the world. There are two main types of typhoid vaccine, injectable and oral.
Children 2 years and older can get an injectable typhoid vaccine, ideally at least 2 weeks prior to travel. It is only one dose and lasts 2 years.
The oral vaccine is only for people 5 years and older. It is given in 4 doses over a week’s time and should be completed at least a week prior to travel. It must be given on an empty stomach (1 hour before eating and 2 hours after eating). Antibiotic treatment can make this vaccine ineffective, so discuss any current medicine you are taking with your doctor. The oral vaccine lasts 5 years.
Neither vaccine is 100 % effective so even immunized people must be careful what they eat and drink in areas of risk.
Meningococcal disease can refer to any illness that is caused by the type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. Within this family, there are several serotypes, such as A, B, C, W, X, and Y. This bacteria causes serious illness and often death, even in the United States.
In the US there is a vaccine against meningitis types A, C, W, and Y recommended at 11 and 16 years of age but it can be given as young as 9 months of age. MenACWY-CRM is approved for children 2 months and older.
There is a vaccine for meningitis B prevention recommended for high risks groups in the US but is not specifically recommended for travel.
Meningitis vaccines should be given at least 7-10 days prior to potential exposure.
Travelers to the meningitis belt in Africa or the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia are considered high risk and should be vaccinated. Serogroup A predominates in the meningitis belt, although serogroups C, X, and W are also found. There is no vaccine against meningitis X, but if one gets the standard one that protects against ACWY, they will be protected against the majority of exposures. Boosters for people traveling to these areas are recommended every 5 years.
Yellow fever is a mosquito-borne infection that is found in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South America. There is no treatment for the illness, but there is a vaccine to help prevent infection. Some areas of the world require vaccination against yellow fever prior to admittance. Yellow fever vaccine is recommended for people over 9 months who are traveling to or living in areas with risk for YFV transmission in South America and Africa.
Most physician offices do not offer this vaccine. A special license is required to be able to provide it. Check with your local health department or a travel clinic in your area. This vaccine should be given at least 10 days prior to travel.
Remember that influenza hits various parts of the world at different times of the year. The southern hemisphere tends to finish their flu season just as ours is starting. Check to see when it’s flu season and vaccinate as needed.
Medications for your trip
Aside from bringing your routine prescription medications and over the counter medicines in their original prescription container, there are some medications that are recommended for traveling to various parts of the world.
Malaria transmission occurs in large areas of Africa, Latin America, parts of the Caribbean, Asia (including South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East), Eastern Europe, and the South Pacific. Depending on the level of risk (location, time of year, availability of air conditioning, etc) no specific interventions, mosquito avoidance measures only, or mosquito avoidance measures plus prescription medication for prophylaxis might be recommended.
Prevention medications might be recommended, depending on when and where you will be traveling. The medicines must begin before travel starts, continue during the duration of the travel, and continue once you return home. There is a lot of resistance to various drugs, so area resistance patterns will need to be evaluated before choosing a medication. Review the area-specific travel recommendations with your doctor.
I am commonly asked to prescribe antibiotics to prevent traveler’s diarrhea. This is discouraged due to growing bacterial resistance to antibiotics. It is best to prevent by avoiding local water, choosing foods wisely, using proper handwashing techniques, and considering bismuth subsalicylate or probiotic use.
Traveler’s diarrhea is often from bacteria, but it can also be from a viral source. Maintaining hydration with clean water with electrolytes is the most important treatment. Many cases of traveler’s diarrhea do not require antibiotics. See details of treatment recommendations in the Yellow Book.
After you return…
If you’ve been in an area of the world that has increased risk for tuberculosis (TB) or if you have suspected exposure to TB, testing for exposure is recommended.
Tuberculosis occurs worldwide, but travelers who go to most countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Russia are at greatest risk.
Travelers should avoid exposure to TB in crowded and enclosed environments. We should all avoid eating or drinking unpasteurized dairy products.
The vaccine against TB (bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine) is given at birth in most developing countries but has variable effectiveness and is not routinely recommended for use in the United States. Those who receive BCG vaccination must still follow all recommended TB infection control precautions and participate in post-travel testing for TB exposure.
It is recommended to test for exposure in healthy appearing people after travel. It is possible to have a positive test but no symptoms. This is called latent disease. One can remain in this stage for decades without any symptoms. If TB remains untreated in the body, it may activate at any time. Typically this happens when the body’s immune system is compromised, as with old age or another illness. Appropriately treating the TB before it causes active disease is beneficial for the long term.