Staying healthy while traveling, especially on long trips, can be a challenge. Change of diet, change of climate, even lack of sleep can wreak havoc on even the toughest digestive and immune systems. Packing some basic medication can save time and trouble in the case of minor aches and pains (and possible hangovers!).
Before we continue, a little disclaimer…we, at cult of travel, are not doctors and the information stated here is not intended as substitute for professional medical advice. We advise that you consult a qualified medical professional for all your health, medication and vaccination related needs and questions.
Like travel clothes and toiletries, what to pack and how much of each item to bring really depends on where you’re going, what kind of conditions you expect to encounter and how easily, or not, these items can be obtained locally.
There is one thing, or good habit, which will go a long way in your quest to avoid illness on the road: keeping your hands clean! This is especially important before eating or handling food. Toilet facilities in the developing world, and I use the term facilities loosely here, will rarely have any clean water for hand washing. Hand sanitizer gel, whether you like it or not, will probably be your first defense against food born illness and other germs and bugs that can put a cramp (excuse the pun) in your itinerary. Keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your day pack to use before grabbing that quick and tasty meal from the street food cart.
First aid items like bandages, gauze pads can easily be found en route, so no need to pack more than a small zip top bag’s worth. Add a few cotton swabs (Qtips), cotton pads (the makeup remover kind), a small pair of scissors, tweezers (to remove splinters), small roll of first aid tape (useful as regular tape as well), a maybe a thermometer and you’re all set. A tube of antiseptic ointment is useful and I always pack a small bottle of tea tree oil. It’s a great natural disinfectant for cuts and scrapes and helps relieve the itch and inflammation from insect bites. A tube of aloe vera gel can serve multiple purposes as well: relieve sunburn, dry itchy skin, insect bites.
A good multi-vitamin can help keep your immune system in check, especially for long-term travel. Picky eaters might find that their new and exotic diet can leave them lacking. Personally, as much as I try to eat a balanced diet on the road, it’s not always possible. The extra boost from the vitamins keeps me from feeling run down.
Protecting yourself against bug bites is essential in malarial zones and areas affected by Dengue fever. Information on malaria and malarial drugs could take up an entire web site on their own. If you’re traveling to or through malarial or dengue fever zones, consult your doctor for the most up-to-date information on these diseases. Note that, to date, there is no vaccine for or drug to treat Dengue fever! Sleeping under a mosquito net at night and covering up bare skin like arms, legs, feet and ankles are only a first defense against being bitten. Burning some of those smelly coils (careful not to create a fire hazard) or using a plugin mosquito vaporizer in your room will also help keep the mozzies at bay. Those measures, along with using a good insect repellent with deet, will help minimize bites. I’m not a huge fan of deet, but it’s effective and sure beats contracting malaria or dengue fever. Applying it directly on your clothing can help if you have sensitive skin though it can leave stains. Citronella based insect repellants are a natural alternative, though not as effective as chemical based repellants. Note: deet insect repellents might not be easy to find in some countries, pack enough to last.
I normally pack a small quantity of the following: both ibuprophen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain & fever, antacid tablet (Tums), diphenhydramine hydrochloride (Benadryl) for mild allergic reactions, cortisone cream (1%) for skin irritation, Loperamide (Immodium) for TD (travelers’ diarrhea). If you’re the least bit prone to motion-sickness, pack some Gravol. Crowded busses swaying around narrow mountain roads or a rough ferryboat ride can leave even the toughest traveler reaching for a plastic bag.
If you have a stomach of steel and don’t think you’ll be affected by traveler’s diarrhea, think again, or rather, think of your fellow travelers. Your stash of Loperamide can be very useful if you’re stuck on an overnight bus sitting next to someone with a bad case of traveler’s diarrhea, a.k.a. Delhi Belly in India, Mummy Tummy in Egypt, and Montezuma’s Revenge in Mexico.
Ciprofloaxacin Hydrochloride (Cipro), a prescription antibiotic, can be used in cased of very severe bacterial TD or bladder infection. Though (see disclaimer at the top of this article) do speak to your doctor about taking any prescription medication.
Don’t forget to pack your contraceptives (i.e. birth control pills) AND condoms!
Always carry a copy of the original prescription of any drug you’re packing. Knowing the generic name of your medication will make communicating with the local pharmacist much easier and much safer if you plan on obtaining refills locally. Keep your meds in their original packaging, loose pills in an unmarked or wrongly labeled bottle can easily raise suspicions if your backpack is searched.
Important: some drugs commonly sold over-the-counter in some countries are illegal without a prescription in others. Contact the embassies of the countries you’ll be visiting for more information on the legality of the medication (prescription or not) you’re taking with you. Example: codeine tablets, sold over-the-counter in Canada, are illegal without a prescription in the United Arab Emirates.
Proper vaccination is essential before any trip abroad. It can cost a bundle but, the peace of mind is worth every penny. Your doctor or local travel medical clinic are the best source of information regarding vaccination and travel medicine. Do some research ahead of time, but don’t rely completely on the advice of other travelers when it comes to vaccination or information on malaria medication. Vaccines are constantly being developed and improved, and conditions in countries can change very quickly
Some vaccines need to be administered in courses, like the Hepatitis Twinrix vaccine, so plan ahead if this is your first big trip. Don’t forget those booster shots. They are necessary to extend the effectiveness of some vaccines which will save you time and money in the long run. It’s also a good idea to keep track of these vaccinations: date, name, dose and keep a copy with your important travel documents when you travel.
Do you have any travel health tips you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you so post your message using the handy comment form below.
One last thing, you can download a complete packing list by clicking here. It includes all the items I mention above along with other backpackers odds and ends.