Tips for Healthy International Travel

Stay safe overseas with advice on vaccinations, insurance and travel planning.


Did you know that lying out in the sun on a tropical island for four hours with nothing but baby oil for skin protection can result in severe sun poisoning?

It can.

I was 15 when my parents took us to the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. It was our first trip after we relocated to London as expats, and we were eager to get some sunshine.

That first winter was dreadful. It was bad enough that we landed at Heathrow in January and then spent six weeks in a drafty flat in Mayfair without any of our possessions.

Once we were settled in our suburban London home, we quickly realized that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) likely originated in England. It was dark when we got up, dark when we left for school and dark when the final bell rang at 3 p.m.

So a sun-drenched vacation in the Canary Islands sounded just right.

Sadly, we were unprepared for the tropical-ness of the island, and the very first day all three of us kids got sunburned so badly that we could barely move for the rest of the trip.

My parents took my little brother, then 8 years old, to an emergency clinic somewhere on the island. I think he got a shot of some kind, and a cream, but I was too busy listening to The Cure on my Walkman to really notice.

Looking back, I shudder to think what it must have been like for my folks to find a health clinic on what is—outside of the resort areas—basically a remote island, with their crispy 8-year-old son in tow.

Have a Safety Net

Of course I hope to provide our daughter with rich, international travel experiences, but I am also hyper-aware of what can go wrong when you travel with kids.

Call me paranoid. Sticks and stones, dude.

As more and more families take their kids on jaunts to Africa, Europe and other exotic locales, it’s important for parents to arm themselves with essential knowledge about what to do in the case of a medical emergency.

Myles Druckman, M.D., is vice president of medical services for International SOS, a company that helps organizations manage health care for their travelers, international workers and customers.

Druckman says that exposing our children to other cultures is a priceless gift, but it’s also important to set up a “safety net” before your adventure.

“[You need] an emergency plan to keep everyone healthy, safe and secure,” Druckman says. “Smart travelers know that once you get out of the United States, medical services vary widely.”

One service that his company provides, he adds, is an on-call medical team that can help with any medical questions you may have while you are abroad, from the routine to the dire.

“A Western-trained doctor will assess your medical condition over the phone, recommend a locally approved provider … and, when necessary, evacuate you to a center of medical excellence,” he says.

However, there are some very specific steps you can take to prepare for a healthy vacation when traveling abroad to both industrialized and developing countries, both before you leave home and once you are at your destination.

Thomas L. Campbell, M.D., of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, N.Y., says safe travel begins at home.

Campbell recommends consulting the Center for Disease Control’s travel section to get information about the country you plan to visit.

He adds that the CDC will be most valuable for travel to developing countries, but those heading to Europe should also check it out.

“Some of Eastern Europe has special considerations,” he says.

Prepare Before You Leave

Campbell advocates visiting your personal physician prior to an international trip, especially if your travels require vaccinations for you and your kids.

“I suggest printing out the relevant pages from the CDC website and finding out where the recommended vaccinations can be obtained,” he says. “Most physicians’ offices will not have some of the unusual ones, like yellow fever or typhoid.”

Campbell suggests checking in with your health insurance company and possibly purchasing medical evacuation insurance in the case of a more serious injury or illness.

“The biggest health risk in developing countries is car accidents,” he says. “That is by far a bigger risk than any unusual infections.”

Hey! No knocking my driving! Besides, my husband probably wouldn’t let me behind the wheel in Zimbabwe.

Druckman agrees that preparation before you leave is essential. Plan for the unlikely by getting the appropriate immunizations (no matter how minute the risk of disease), and leave detailed copies of your itinerary with friends or family back home.

Simple precautions like having an English-to-Swahili dictionary (or whatever the main language is in your destination) and a plan for emergencies go a long way to ensuring you have a safe and fun trip.

And don’t forget to pack that sunscreen. Because baby oil just won’t cut it. 

Themes: Family Travel

User Comments

Pack your own medicine kit! For as long back as I can remember, whenever we traveled as a family, my dad always packed a small suitcase filled with everything from Immodium, Tylenol Cough and Flu, to antibiotics and sterile gauze and bandaids. At the time, I didn't think much of his traveling medicine man bag, but now I can see the wisdom of it. On a recent trip to Mexico, my husband came down with a pretty bad cold- something that some over-the-counter Sudafed would have easily taken care of. So, now I have learned my lesson, and I'm sharing it with you: I will always pack my own small drug/first-aid kit. Who knows. Maybe parents do know what they're doing.

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