Medical resources in Antarctica are limited. There are no public hospitals, pharmacies or doctor’s offices. Ships and research bases have infirmaries, but usually with just a single doctor or nurse, and limited equipment. A life-threatening medical problem will require evacuation to a country with advanced medical care.

Ship’s doctors treat problems arising onboard, but are not available for routine consultations, nor are they equipped for elaborate medical intervention. These voyages to extreme climates can test the healthiest among us: make all necessary preparations before leaving; and if your health is shaky, consider postponing.

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Before You Go

Health Insurance

Find out in advance if your insurance plan makes payments directly to providers or reimburses you later for overseas health expenditures, and inquire of your tour operator what health facilities are available. If your insurance does not cover medical expenses abroad, or costly emergency evacuations (tens of thousands of dollars), plan on organizing supplementary insurance; some tour operators require it.

Recommended Vaccinations

No special vaccines are required for travel to Antarctica, but everyone should be up-to-date on routine immunizations. Bring any medications in their original containers, clearly labeled, and, if required, syringes. Also bring a signed, dated letter from your physician describing all medical conditions and medications, including generic names.

In Antarctica

Availability & Cost of Healthcare

Medical resources in Antarctica are limited. There are no public hospitals, pharmacies or doctor’s offices. Ships and research bases have infirmaries, but usually with just a single doctor or nurse, and limited equipment. A life-threatening medical problem will require evacuation to a country with advanced medical care.

Tap Water

If you find yourself on a base with a tap for water, check with base employees to find out if the water is potable.

Seasickness

The bane of many a traveler, seasickness is simply a natural response to the sea’s motion.

  • Eat lightly, but never have a completely empty stomach.
  • Book a cabin that minimizes motion: midship, lower-deck cabins can be more comfortable.
  • Fresh air and a view of the horizon usually help.
  • Avoid reading, cigarette smoke, alcohol and diesel fumes.
  • Ships’ doctors dispense one or two commercial remedies, but plan ahead and bring your favored treatments, even if you’ve never been seasick before.

Commercial motion-sickness remedies must be taken before you start to feel seasick:

  • Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine, Travel-Gum), meclizine (Antivert, Bonine): common choice, but often cause drowsiness.
  • Promethazine (Phenergan): less drowsiness than motion sickness itself. Promotes adaptation to motion. Can still cause drowsiness, dizziness and dry mouth.
  • Scopolamine (Transderm Scop/Travel Patch)

Non-medicinal remedies:

  • Ginger
  • Acupressure wrist bands

Other Ailments

Visitors to the South Pole and inland East Antarctica can experience altitude sickness among other maladies.

Dehydration Antarctica’s extremely dry environment can lead to dehydration. Signs include dark-yellow urine and/or fatigue. Drink at least 4L of water a day; avoid coffee and tea.

Frostbite Most likely to occur in the nose, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. First signs are numbness and redness, followed by the development of waxy, white/yellow plaque. Dress in layers; wear a hat; keep dry (waterproof outer layer); change wet clothes, socks and gloves.

Hypothermia Occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, and core temperature falls; often due to a combination of wind, wet clothing, fatigue and hunger. Symptoms include exhaustion, numb skin (particularly in fingers, toes), shivering, slurred speech, irrational or violent behavior, lethargy, stumbling, dizzy spells, muscle cramps and violent bursts of energy. Get out of the wind and rain; change wet clothing for dry; drink hot liquids (not alcohol); eat high-calorie, easily digestible food; and, if possible, take a warm (not hot) shower.

Sun exposure Even on overcast days it’s easy to get sunburned, and suffer eye pain, as the sun reflects off snow, ice and sea. Wear ultraviolet-filtering sunglasses and sunblock.