Five tips for safer travel abroad

March 5, 2014 in Travel Health  •  By Miles Varn

Whether you’re planning a family trip to Costa Rica or a business trip to Japan, it’s smart to do some simple preparation well before you start packing your bags. Staying safe and healthy is always important and it’s even more so when traveling abroad because dealing with an illness or injury while outside the country can be much more difficult and, in some cases, riskier than handling the same situation at home.

To help you protect yourself and your family, you should make five key actions part of your pre-trip planning.

1. Learn about the health risks at your destination.
Common diseases like avian flu in China get a good deal of media attention and are, of course, important to guard against. However, you and your family could be at greater risk from common food and insect borne diseases like E. coli, giardiasis and malaria or diseases that have been mostly eradicated in the U.S., like polio. Both polio and rubella (German measles) outbreaks have recently been detected in parts of Africa and the Middle East and have the potential to spread to Europe.

You can learn about the specific health risks at your destination by visiting both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of State websites. The State Department’s site also includes information about other types of risks, including unrest, war and crime.

2. Check and protect your health.
A month or more before your trip, schedule an appointment with your doctor to get needed immunizations and a general check-up that can uncover any undiagnosed health issues.

If you are living with a chronic condition like diabetes, heart disease, respiratory issues or other serious conditions, ask your physician where the best medical care can be found at your destination. In many countries, there is no coordinated ambulance service, so knowing what hospital to go to, where it’s located and which physicians are most qualified to provide your care and speak English is vital. If your physician doesn’t have the information you need, try contacting one who specializes in travel medicine or visit the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers website.

3. Bring the right health supplies.
You should bring enough of any prescription medicines you take regularly or require in an emergency. Keep them in their original bottles and carry a copy of your prescriptions. In addition, your traveler’s health kit should include a supply of basic over-the-counter drugs such as pain reliever, anti-diarrhea, antacid, and nausea medications, antibiotic and antihistamine cream, antihistamine, decongestant, cough suppressant and anti-bacterial hand gel or wipes.

To protect against insect-borne diseases, bring an insect repellent that contains DEET or an effective alternative for use on your skin and treat clothing with permethrin. If you’re traveling with children, talk to your pediatrician about which insect repellent formulas are safe for children.

4. Build an electronic curated medical record.
Before you travel, it’s wise to have all your medical records organized, reviewed by a physician and securely stored in an electronic format. If you become ill or are injured while abroad, the information can be quickly delivered to your treating physician and could be life-saving.

If you take medication, have a chronic condition or recently had surgery or other treatments like chemotherapy or radiation, get a document from your doctor that details your medical conditions, the medications you take, and information about any recent treatments or surgeries. The CDC also recommends carrying a card, in the local language, which identifies any conditions you have, medications you take, your blood type and allergies.

5. Purchase travel insurance and medical evacuation coverage before leaving home.
Most US based health insurance policies do not cover treatment outside of the US. Furthermore, most foreign hospitals and providers will not treat you without a guarantee of payment. Travel insurance carriers cover the cost of unexpected emergent or urgent care; they also provide a guarantee of payment 24/7/365. You do not want to be stuck trying to wire money from your bank in the middle of the night.

Also, you need to be prepared if you are hospitalized and want or need evacuation back to your home or a hospital of your choice. The cost of an air ambulance in some cases can exceed $100,000. Medical evacuation coverage provides insurance to cover the cost should you find yourself stuck in an inadequate hospital far from home. One word of advice—read the small print carefully because different providers have different limitations and exclusions. Pick a policy and provider that give you the greatest freedom of choice.

Learning about health risks at your destination and taking the steps needed to prepare for an unexpected illness or injury while you’re abroad can help you mitigate those risks as much as possible and take the worry out of traveling.