3 Quick Travel Health Tips for an International Trip

PHU QUOC, VIETNAM – I love to travel, but I’m getting old. I know it because on our recent 10-day Asia trip, I became a shell of myself and slowly withered away health-wise due to stupidity and a little bit of bad luck. And it all happened so fast. So learn from me. Take these three health tips with you on your next vacation to Asia, South or Central America, Europe, or wherever you may be just a little bit out of your Westernized comfort zone.

1. The sun will burn you, bro!

Sun protection is important. Our skin is valuable, and a little bit of sun can go so much (vitamin D, nice healthy-looking tans and all) but too much and we become a leathery-looking mess at risk of skin cancer. You know, the kind of sun damage that’s irreversible and adds up continuously over time to increase our overall risk of melanoma.

I was silly and wore sun protection for the first few days of our beach adventures in Phu Quoc and then, on the final day, when I figured my tan wasn’t quite shaded enough and I didn’t have enough of an impressive skin tone to bring back home with me, I decided to attempt the last day on the beach/pool sans sun protection. I tanned hard. It’s like chasing a sun-high: I even decided to go back on my medication I knew would give me a higher risk of sun sensitivity. (So before travelling to a hot beach destination, don’t forget to check with your pharmacist if you’re on medication.)

I came back with my exposed upper body looking like a lobster had died and wrapped its reddish skin around my sad skeleton. So, don’t do that. Wear sunscreen throughout your travels, don’t take a day off, and re-apply. Your future skin will thank you for it.

2. Bike smart, not stupid

Like most, I’ve ridden a bicycle most of my life. The saying “it’s like riding a bike” came about for a reason. But strange things can happen in foreign lands, with new stimuli and new patterns of behavior. As comfortable as we get, we need to realize that when traveling, your environment is different, you’re at risk of accidents and bad behavior when you’re at your happiest and completely care-free. Keep your guard up and be smart even when chillin’.

A simple 8-person bike tour from a Vietnamese resort, the most simple and activities one can do, one that most 5 year old kids wouldn’t have a problem with, became a near-death experience for me in Phu Quoc when the mere act of taking a photo of my fiance and the other bikers riding in front of me caused me to have only my left hand available to brake when necessary, causing me to flip over my bike and hit the pavement hand-and-chest-first, with the scars and scabs and bruised ribs to prove it, a freakish (and embarrassing accident) I’m still recovering from.

The same goes for scooters or motorbikes. Be wise. If you don’t already know how to ride a scooter or motorbike, perhaps a foreign land with more aggressive driving styles, drunk drivers, mad traffic, and sketchy roads is not the best place to learn how to do it. Learn at home, eh? If you’re skilled and comfortable, go ahead and rent that motorbike. (Or maybe stick to the bicycle.)

Moral of the story: Keep your hands on the wheel or both handlebars, keep your eyes and your hands off your phone or camera, wear a seatbelt and/or helmet, and pay the f*ck attention! One bad choice and you could be in a foreign hospital (luckily, a bit of first aid was all I needed).

3. Don’t let diarrhea & disease destroy your travel dreams

Seriously, traveler’s diarrhea is a menace! Especially on a short trip where you need to make the most of your time, getting the bug can destroy a few days of enjoyment. Prepare by visiting a travel clinic and/or pharmacy or researching closely (i.e. CDC) as to general travel advice for an area, and which vaccines you may need. There’s not much to prevent diarrhea, but it’s good to have an over-the-counter option like Pepto-Bismol or Immodium (loperamide) just in case, and perhaps you can discuss prescription options like azithromycin or

ciprofloxacin with your pharmacists just in case of moderate-to-severe TD (traveler’s diarrhea). From CDC:

  • Eat food that is cooked and served hot, fruits and vegetables you have washed in clean water or peeled yourself, and pasteurized dairy products.
  • Don’t eat food served at room temperature, food from street vendors, or raw or undercooked (rare) meat or fish.
  • Drink bottled water that is sealed, ice made with bottled or disinfected water, and bottled or canned carbonated drinks.
  • Don’t drink tap or well water or drinks with ice made with tap or well water or unpasteurized milk.

I experienced TD which took a good day of happiness out of me but luckily it only lasted a day and a half, as I managed to have an antibiotic with me. Too much overuse of such things lead to antibiotic resistance and future decrease in effectiveness of these drugs, but it may be the thing to save your trip from days of misery if you use it when needed.

Be smart about what you eat! Both of my severe sicknesses (once nausea/vomiting from possible food poisoning, and once vicious stomach-saddening TD) came from days of nonstop manic street food binges, some which included some poor choices. Remember to eat smart. If the food seems dodgy, you might be like me, spending the next day or two running to the toilet or puking off the side of the boat.

Other vaccines may be indicated for you as well, depending on where you’re going. Check with your pharmacist, physician, or travel clinic. Visit the the CDC’s great site, or the Government of Canada’s Travel Health site.

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