Health & safety
Prevention is the key to staying healthy while you are abroad. A little planning before your departure, particularly for pre-existing illnesses, will save trouble later: see your dentist before a long trip, carry a spare pair of contact lenses and glasses, and take your optical prescription with you. Bring medications in their original, clearly labelled containers. A signed and dated letter from your physician describing your medical conditions and medications, including generic names, is also a good idea. If carrying syringes or needles, be sure to have a physician’s letter documenting their medical necessity.
If you’re an EU citizen, a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), available from health centres or, in the UK, post offices, covers you for most medical care. It will not cover you for nonemergencies or emergency repatriation. Citizens from other countries should find out if there is a reciprocal arrangement for free medical care between their country and Poland. If you do need health insurance, strongly consider a policy that covers you for the worst possible scenario, such as an accident requiring an emergency flight home. Find out in advance if your insurance plan will make payments directly to providers or if they’ll reimburse you later for overseas health expenditures. The former option is generally preferable, as it doesn’t require you to pay for services in a foreign country.
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The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that all travellers should be covered for diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and polio, regardless of their intended destination. Since most vaccines don’t produce immunity until at least two weeks after they’re given, visit a physician at least six weeks before your departure.
International Travel and Health, a publication of the WHO, is revised annually and is available online at www.who.int/ith. Other useful websites include www.mdtravelhealth.com (travel health recommendations for every country, which are updated daily), www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk (general travel advice for the layperson), www.ageconcern.org.uk (advice on travel for the elderly) and www.mariestopes.org.uk (information on women’s health and contraception).
It’s also a good idea to consult your government’s travel health website before departure:
United Kingdom (www.dh.gov.uk)
United States (www.cdc.gov/travel)
Poland is a relatively safe country to travel in, but it does have its fair share of crime. Always keep your eyes open and let common sense prevail. Problems mostly occur in big cities, with Warsaw being perhaps the least safe place in Poland. Take care when walking alone at night, particularly in the suburb of Praga, and be alert at Warszawa Centralna (Warsaw Central) train station, the favourite playground for thieves and pickpockets. Other large cities appear to be quieter, but keep your wits about you. By and large, the smaller the town, the safer it is.
Keep a sharp eye on your pockets and your bag in crowded places such as markets or city buses and trams. Beware of being short-changed at train stations, taxis, restaurants etc. Always have some smaller bills in order to make change more easily. Hotels are generally safe, though it’s better not to leave valuables in your room. In most places you can deposit them at the reception desk.
While car theft is on the decrease, those travelling in cars with foreign number plates should use secure parking at night. ‘Pirate’ or ‘mafia’ taxis can be a problem in Warsaw and some other large cities. Poles have an aversion to stopping at zebra crossings – be very careful when stepping out into the road.
If your passport, valuables and/or other belongings are lost or stolen, report it to the police. They will give you a copy of the statement, which serves as a temporary identity document; if you have insurance, you’ll need to present the statement to your insurer in order to make a claim. English-speaking police are rare, so it’s best to take along an interpreter if you can. Don’t hold high hopes of having your possessions returned to you, for the police earn next to nothing and can be rather cynical about a ‘rich’ foreigner complaining about losing a few dollars.
Heavy drinking is a way of life in Poland and drunks may at times be disturbing. Poles smoke a lot and so far there has been little serious antitobacco campaigning. Polish cigarettes are of low quality and the smoke they produce is barely tolerable for anyone not used to them, let alone a nonsmoker.
Slow and impolite service in shops, offices and restaurants is slowly being eradicated, though you can still occasionally experience it. By the way, if a couple of young boys offer to bag your shopping at a supermarket, they’re not begging or scamming – they’re boy scouts collecting for charity.
Since WWII Poland has been ethnically an almost entirely homogeneous nation, and Poles, particularly those living in rural areas, have had little contact with foreigners. As a result, travellers racially different to the average Pole may attract some stares and a few giggles from the locals. In most cases, this is just a curiosity, without any hostility in mind. While there have been some acts of racism in the cities, it’s still not a social problem by any definition.
Deep vein thrombosis (dvt)
Blood clots may form in the legs during plane flights, chiefly because of prolonged immobility. The longer the flight, the greater the risk. The chief symptom of DVT is swelling or pain of the foot, ankle or calf, usually but not always on just one side. When a blood clot travels to the lungs, it may cause chest pain and breathing difficulties. Travellers with any of these symptoms should immediately seek medical attention.
To prevent the development of DVT on long flights you should walk about the cabin, contract the leg muscles while sitting, drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol and tobacco.
Jet lag & motion sickness
To avoid jet lag (common when crossing more than five time zones) try drinking plenty of nonalchoholic fluids and eating light meals. Upon arrival, get exposure to natural sunlight and readjust your schedule (for meals, sleep and so on) as soon as possible.
Antihistamines such as dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and meclizine (Antivert, Bonine) are usually the first choice for treating motion sickness. A herbal alternative is ginger.
Availability & cost of health care
High-quality medical care is not always readily available outside of major cities, but embassies, consulates and five-star hotels can usually recommend doctors or clinics. In some cases, medical supplies required in hospital may need to be bought from a pharmacy and nursing care may be limited. Note that there can be an increased risk of hepatitis B and HIV transmission via poorly sterilised equipment.
Tick-borne encephalitis is spread by tick bites. It is a serious infection of the brain, and vaccination is advised for those in risk areas who are unable to avoid tick bites (such as campers, forestry workers and walkers). Two doses of vaccine will give a year’s protection, and three doses will cover you for up to three years.
Insect bites & stings
Mosquitoes are found in most parts of Europe. They are a particular pest around the region of the Great Masurian Lakes. They may not carry malaria but can cause irritation and infected bites. Use a DEET-based insect repellent.
Bees and wasps only cause major problems to those with a severe allergy (anaphylaxis). If you have a severe allergy to bee or wasp stings carry an ‘EpiPen’ or similar adrenaline injection.
Bed bugs lead to very itchy, lumpy bites. Spraying the mattress with crawling insect killer after changing bedding will get rid of them.
Scabies are tiny mites that live in the skin, particularly between the fingers. They cause an intensely itchy rash. Scabies are easily treated with lotion from a pharmacy; other members of the household also need treating to avoid spreading scabies between asymptomatic carriers.
Travelling with children
All travellers with children should know how to treat minor ailments and when to seek medical treatment. Make sure the children are up-to-date with routine vaccinations, and discuss possible travel vaccines well before departure, as some vaccines are not suitable for children under one year of age.
In hot, moist climates any wound or break in the skin is likely to let in infection. The area should be cleaned and kept dry.
Remember to avoid contaminated food and water. If your child has vomiting or diarrhoea, lost fluid and salts must be replaced. It may be helpful to take rehydration powders for reconstituting with boiled water.
Children should be encouraged to avoid and mistrust any dogs or other mammals because of the risk of rabies and other diseases. Any bite, scratch or lick from a warm-blooded, furry animal should immediately be thoroughly cleaned. If there is any possibility that the animal is infected with rabies, medical assistance should be sought immediately.
Travelling during pregnancy is usually possible but always consult your doctor before planning your trip. The most risky times for travel are during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and after 30 weeks.
Emergency contraception is most effective if taken within 24 hours after unprotected sex. The International Planned Parent Federation (www.ippf.org) can advise about the availability of contraception in different countries.
When buying condoms, look for a European CE mark, which means that they have been rigorously tested, and then keep them in a cool, dry place or they may crack and perish.