Our tips to avoid getting sick when travelling include everything from boosting your immunity before you leave home with fermented foods to washing your hands compulsively when you’re away and taking preventative anti-diarrhoea medication to try to avoid ‘travellers’ tummy’.
There are few things worse than being sick when you’re on that much-needed holiday, whether it’s a spontaneous long weekend away or a round-the-world trip for which you’ve long been planning and saving all year, especially if it’s an illness that confines you to the hotel room (and bathroom) for a few days.
Whether it’s a cold or flu – which there’s a high chance of getting when trapped in close quarters on a plane with passengers sneezing and coughing – or ‘travellers’ tummy’ AKA Delhi belly, Montezuma’s revenge and Bali belly from eating street food or even from the hotel buffet or a Michelin-starred meal, it’s an absolute pain in the, um… butt.
Our best tips to avoid getting sick when travelling are based on decades of experience travelling professionally and for pleasure. But while our advice might help you to avoid getting sick on your next holiday, you may fall ill the one after. It’s hard to evade forever and it hits you at the most surprising times.
Terence was once so ill after dinner at a Michelin 3-starred restaurant in Paris he couldn’t leave the hotel and I had to return to Dubai to work without him. On a holiday in Turkey, we shared a seafood platter with my best friend. She and Terence were perfectly fine the next morning while I barely left the bed or bathroom for two days.
Follow our tips to avoid getting sick when travelling and you’ll have a greater chance of remaining healthy than if you didn’t follow them.
Tips to Avoid Getting Sick When Travelling – How to Stay Healthy on Holidays
These are our tips to avoid getting sick when travelling based on decades of travel experience and prepared in consultation with health professionals, however, this should not replace a visit to a doctor or travel clinic, which is one of the first things we recommend you do before you travel.
Visit Your Doctor or a Travel Clinic
Our best tip to avoid getting sick when travelling is to visit your doctor or a specialised travel clinic as soon as you know your departure date. Aim for at least 6-8 weeks before you leave if heading to a developing country, as you might need vaccinations that may need to be administered over some weeks in order to do their job properly. A good GP can advise on vaccinations and arrange those but if in doubt visit a dedicated travel clinic, particularly if you’ll need certificates for vaccinations for things such as Yellow Fever.
Do Your Own Research
Do some research before your travel clinic appointment, as some have a tendency to over-prescribe medications and vaccinations. I can’t tell you how many travellers I’ve met in Siem Reap taking malarials. You don’t need them for Cambodian cities, only if venturing out to remote villages or doing a jungle trek. Give yourself an overview of the situation in your destination – quality travel guidebooks such as Lonely Planet have health chapters written by qualified medical professionals and are a good place to start. Then check the latest updates on recent outbreaks of diseases on the World Health Organisation site. You’ll then be in a better position to discuss what the doctor proposes and weigh up pros and cons. Malarials, for instance, can have adverse side effects for some people that can take the fun out of a holiday.
Get Prescriptions Filled
Get your prescriptions filled for medications for any pre-existing conditions, then do two things. Firstly, keep receipts for the filled prescriptions with the boxes so if asked you can prove to authorities that you’ve obtained what you’re carrying legally and are indeed meant to be taking them. Also get fresh prescriptions from your family doctor in case you run out or lose your medication. However, you also need to check what medications you can legally take into the country you’re travelling to, as there may be limits or restrictions.
Check Restrictions on Medications
Make sure your medicines are not banned and that there aren’t limits on the amount you can carry in the destinations you’re travelling to. Some countries restrict psychotropic medications, such as antidepressants and anti-psychotics, and controlled substances, such as opiates and stimulants. Other countries forbid over-the-counter treatments for colds, such as Sudafed, which contains pseudoephedrine; attention deficit disorder medications, which may contain methamphetamines and amphetamines; pain medications, such as codeine and tramadol, which could get you arrested in countries such as Japan, Greece and Saudi Arabia; and sleeping medications that contain zolpidem, such as Ambien, which isn’t allowed in Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. Japan is especially strict. Do thorough research before you pack. Never rely on one source, even if it’s an embassy official. Check with embassy staff, but also see this excellent guide to what you need to know about travelling with medications on the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers website, and this A-Z country guide to regulations for travellers carrying medicines containing controlled substances on the International Narcotics Control Board website.
Get Fit, Stay Healthy and Get Rest
Life can get busy and often stressful in the weeks and days before you travel overseas, especially if you’re taking a big trip, it’s your first time overseas, you’re taking a long-haul flight, or you’re going somewhere you’ve never been. Along with the usual travel preparations, you might have a business to get in order, work to get on top of, pet- or house-sitting to arrange, family to visit, etc. As busy as you are, our best tips to avoid getting sick when travelling include pre-trip exercise, good eating and lots of rest. Don’t halt your fitness regime, skip meals or lose sleep. You need to ensure your immune system is strong in case it needs to fight battles when you arrive at your destination, especially if you’re heading to a developing country.
Boost Your Immune System
Even the thought of travel can take its toll on your immune system if you’re stressing about getting everything done before you go away and then once you leave home you’re stressing about airport security, immigration lines, delayed flights, and tight connections. Then there’s the chance of contact with sick people at the airport and on your plane (one person sneezing on you is all it takes!), post-flight jet lag, new food and bacteria, pollution, and so on. Another of our best tips to avoid getting sick when travelling is to try to boost your immune system before you travel. That way you’ll have a far greater chance of staying healthy on your holiday.
Some experts suggest vitamin supplements, especially Vitamin B and C, if you believe you’re deficient in those. Fermented foods, such as yoghurt, pickles, kim chi, and sauerkraut, which contain probiotics are fantastic. Harvard Medical School’s advice on how to strengthen your immune system is really just good advice on how to live a healthy life: “Every part of your body, including your immune system, functions better when protected from environmental assaults and bolstered by healthy-living strategies,” they say, and to strengthen your immune system, they recommend: no smoking; eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables; exercising regularly; maintaining a healthy weight; if drinking alcohol, only drinking in moderation; getting adequate sleep; taking steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly; and trying to minimise stress.
Create a Travel Kit of Essentials
Another one of my top tips to avoid getting sick when travelling is to create a small portable travel kit of essentials that you can carry with you every day when you’re out and about. I make these up for participants on my culinary tours and include mini bottles of hand sanitiser, sunscreen and mosquito/insect repellent, packets of electrolytes in powder form that you can easily add to a bottle of water (wow, they work wonders), tissues, a small soap, and sanitising wipes, which are useful for wiping down any dirty surfaces, such as arm rests on planes and buses. Surgical face masks, which you’ll see locals wearing everywhere in Southeast Asia, will protect your from germs and pollution, although you can buy these cheaply from pharmacies in Asian capitals. You’ll need one in places such as Chiang Mai in March-April; even Bangkok has had toxic levels of pollution recently. A bamboo straw, re-usable travel cutlery, and a pair of chopsticks also come in handy if you ever doubt the hygiene of utensils at street food stalls and local eateries.
Pack a Travel First Aid Kit
Buy a travel-size first aid kit or create your own. You can pop your medications and prescriptions in that, along with your anti-diarrhoea medication (see below). For the flight to your destination, it’s best to split medications between your carry-on and checked-in luggage, in case your luggage goes astray, and leave the first-aid kit in your checked-in luggage if it has a pair of small scissors, which are super-handy. Depending on where you’re going and what you’re doing, consider the following: band-aids (plasters), sterile wound-cleaning gauze and dressings, bandage tape, tweezers, scissors, a thermometer, eye wash, antihistamine cream or tablets, rash cream such as hydrocortisone or calendula, antiseptic cream, painkillers such as paracetamol or aspirin, sunburn treatment, and insect bite relief cream or balm, although you’ll find that in abundance in Southeast Asia if you’re heading here. We love Tiger Balm.
Pack Preventative Anti-Diarrhoea Medication
One of our top tips to avoid getting sick when travelling is anti-diarrhoea medication such as Travelan. Don’t even think about not packing it. Firstly, because once those stomach cramps strike you and you have to find a bathroom, it’s too late. Good luck if you’re on a train or bus and there is no bathroom. If you’re in your hotel room, you are not going to feel like going anywhere, let alone out in search of a pharmacy and most hotels and tour companies won’t go to a pharmacy for you for legal reasons. The only thing they can do is call a doctor – which is why you need travel insurance (see below).
Secondly, if you’re travelling to a developing country, no matter how many of our tips to avoid getting sick when travelling that you follow, unfortunately, at some stage, you will probably get diarrhoea. That might be because you forgot where you were and cleaned your teeth with tap water, you ate a piece of fruit contaminated by unclean water, or tucked into street food – and it’s not necessarily the street food itself, it could be that the vendor has touched the food with his/her un-gloved hands, which have probably been handling currency, a big carrier of germs. Click through for more tips to eating safe street food.
And let’s not only blame street food for making you ill, because the chances of you getting sick from a hotel breakfast buffet – or any buffet for that matter – are high, partly because the food sits out for so long, but also because you’re using the same serving spoons as hundreds of other hotel guests, some of whom might not have washed their hands before breakfast. That’s why you hear those stories of hundreds of people getting sick on cruise ships. You can also fall ill after eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant, as I mentioned above, and trust us on this – I speak from many very unpleasant and expensive experiences.
Why we suggest Travelan, which you should ideally take before a meal but can also be taken after a meal (see below), is because it’s preventative and stops traveller’s diarrhoea before it ruins your trip. The makers claim it gives you up to 90% protection, so even if you did experience stomach cramps they’d be far less uncomfortable than if you didn’t take it. The product has been clinically proven with solid scientific research findings behind it and what’s also handy is that no prescription is required and you can buy it over the counter and online via Amazon.
Travelan’s active ingredient is bovine colostrum powder, which is a source of antibodies that bind to E. coli (ETEC or Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli) bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, preventing them from attaching to the intestinal wall and thereby neutralising their ability to cause diarrhoea, fever, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and dysentery. All of which can be super dangerous if not treated, as they can cause severe dehydration and worse.
Watch What’s Being Touched!
Watch what those hotel guests, especially children, are touching at the breakfast buffet. Watch what your street food cook is touching, and also watch what you are touching as you are out and about. Try to avoid holding hand rails that countless other people may have been holding. And avoid touching your own face, especially your mouth, nose and eyes afterwards. When we talk about food or water being contaminated, it’s typically contaminated by human or animal faeces, which is why you should steer yourself toward street food cooks who are wearing gloves or if they aren’t wearing gloves, they aren’t touching the food with their hands and are using tongs instead, and they aren’t handling money but have someone else to do that for them. This is also why it’s so important to wash your hands with soap frequently when you travel, especially if you’ve shaken someone’s hand or been touching something handled by other people – such as that buffet breakfast serving spoon!
Consider Extra Protection
If you have reason to be concerned that you might have picked something up, the makers of Travelan say it should also work if taken soon after you eat or drink so pop one of those suckers just in case. For instance, if you’ve just done a street food tour and sampled snacks that your guide might have handed to you with their bare fingers and you didn’t want to be impolite so you popped it in your mouth anyway. Or, you’ve just finished a cooking class and shared utensils with participants who you clearly saw didn’t wash their hands when the instructor advised them to…
These are the sorts of things that cause ‘traveller’s tummy’, which refers to stomach pains, mild nausea, minor diarrhoea, and maybe vomiting and full-blown diarrhoea, which is typically caused by the kind of things I’ve just described, but might also be caused from the stress of travel, lack of sleep, dehydration from your flight, and your new diet and eating food you’re not used to it. This is why it’s important to follow our tips to avoid getting sick when travelling.However, you need to also consider that it could be symptoms of cholera, parasites and intestinal disorders, which is why a post-travel check-up with your doctor is always a good idea (see below).
Buy Travel Insurance
Do not leave home without buying travel insurance. I can’t emphasise the important of having travel insurance enough. Hospital and other medical expenses, even just having a doctor visit you at your hotel, can be incredibly expensive in some countries. Cover for emergency medical evacuation (‘medivac’) is outrageously expensive but is a necessity in some destinations, especially countries such as Cambodia, where public hospitals are not of the standard you’re used to back home. If you have to change your travel plans, perhaps even cancel flights and buy new tickets, because you can’t leave your hotel bathroom, good travel insurance will cover that kind of thing, although of course, you need to notify your travel insurer the second you are sick and discuss your situation with them to decide the best course of action. If you don’t have a favourite travel insurer, we recommend World Nomads travel insurance and there is an enquiry box at the end of this page.
Wash Your Hands Compulsively
As a child, my parents and grandparents taught me the importance of washing my hands regularly, particularly after going to the bathroom and before meals. But it was really instilled in me by watching my uncle, who was studying to be a doctor, wash his hands somewhat obsessively – and it wasn’t a quick wash, it took forever, as if he was scrubbing up for surgery. Sometimes he’d lather up the soap so much there would be bubbles floating in the bathroom. One of my top tips to avoid getting sick when travelling is that you do the same. Washing your hands, for at least 30 seconds the experts say, will reduce your chances of catching something or unsuspectingly passing something on that you might have caught – from the flu to gastroenteritis, or even something worse. When you can’t wash your hands is when you bring out that hand sanitiser.
Drink Clean Water
While tap water is safe to drink in Australia and New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Europe, and North America, it’s not safe in a lot of developing countries where contaminated water is one of the main causes of health complaints for travellers, from gastrointestinal problems to bacterial diseases. Drink bottled drinking water and clean your teeth with bottled water. Run out of bottled water in your hotel room late at night? Yes, we’ve all been there. Then boil water in your kettle. Don’t even think about drinking that tap water. Of course those plastic bottles do significant harm to the environment, so do opt for filtered water where available in cafés, restaurants and hotels or carry your own water bottle with built-in filter. If you’re doing jungle treks, going camping, or travelling to remote villages, you should consider travelling with purification tablets or a SteriPEN, which can sterilise one litre of water in 90 seconds.
Decline Unfiltered Ice
By the same token, decline ice in your drinks and shaved ice desserts if you cannot be certain that they have been made from filtered water. Ice served in hotels, restaurants and good cafés will usually be filtered but you can’t always be certain at local eateries and street food stalls. In countries like Cambodia, ice cubes are typically created from filtered water and crushed ice is usually made from large blocks of ice from unfiltered water. But that’s not always the case. Just ask. People are usually honest. Nobody wants you to be sick on purpose.
Watch What You Eat
Eating local food, especially street food, is one of the greatest sources of pleasure when we all travel. But you do need to take care when eating, especially in local eateries, on the streets and in markets in developing countries, where there’s a greater chance of food contamination and exposure to everything from E. coli and salmonella to giardia, the causes of traveller’s diarrhoea and gastrointestinal issues. For instance, you can probably trust that good hotels, restaurants and cafés are going to wash their vegetables for salads with clean water and that any raw foods, such as raw seafood for a ceviche or raw beef for a steak tartare or beef carpaccio are going to be handled correctly. However, it’s best to skip the salads and not to eat raw food from a simple local eatery or street food stall, which might only have washed the produce with tap water and which probably doesn’t have refrigeration. See our post on eating street food safely for lots more tips on what not to eat.
Avoid Heat Exhaustion and Sunstroke
Climate change has resulted in extreme temperatures everywhere so take extra care in the sun to avoid sunburn, dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke, which can make you ill and at its most serious can land you in hospital and even result in death. Australia, for instance, has been experiencing some of its hottest days on record, so as the ad jingle in Australia used to go: “slip, slop, slap” – slip on a shirt (a long sleeved, light weight linen or cotton shirt is best – or a kaftan, kimono or whatever takes your fancy), slop on some sunscreen (SPF30 is recommended), and slap on a hat. If you’re travelling in summer (anywhere) or the rest of the year in regions such as Southeast Asia and the Middle East, especially the Arabian Peninsula and cities like Dubai and Doha, where it’s hot for much of the year, restrict your outdoor activities to early in the morning and late afternoon, drink loads of water, take electrolytes, and take it easy. Monitor yourself and your companions for signs of heatstroke, such as dizziness and confusion, and can take action as soon as you recognise them.
Get a Post-Trip Check-Up
When you return home book an appointment with your doctor for a post-trip check-up, particularly if you were ill, despite all my tips to avoid getting sick when travelling, and especially if you find that your illness is lingering. If symptoms persist, especially stomach cramps or diarrhoea, then it’s best to visit a specialised travel clinic. A dear friend was once ill after eating street food snacks in India and even after returning home stomach cramps persisted and he didn’t fully recover for years. Another friend arrived back in Australia with similar symptoms – his specialist discovered a parasite that had decided to join him on his travels somewhere during his African adventure.
Those are some of our best tips to avoid getting sick when travelling based on decades on the road in both a personal and professional capacity, and prepared in consultation with health professionals. This is by no means comprehensive and we welcome your tips in the comments below.