As a mum of two young globetrotters, I’ve seen my share of travel health problems. And I’ve come to realise that keeping my family healthy on the road is all in the planning.
You can avoid a lot, if not all, nasty surprises with a little research and preparation before leaving home, adopting a few good habits when you’re on the move, and knowing how to handle the most common problems you’re likely to encounter.
Read on for some quick tips on staying healthy, wherever your wanderlust leads you and the kids.
What to do before you go
Research your destination
Research your destination to find out if you require additional vaccinations and double check you are up to date with routine ones. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a comprehensive list of destinations (cdc.gov) outlining which vaccines you need. If you are travelling off the beaten track, you may wish to consult a travel health specialist. Don’t leave this to last minute as certain drugs – eg antimalarials – may need to be started at least two weeks prior to travel.
Sort out insurance
Even if you own health insurance, it may not cover overseas travel. It’s worth buying decent travel insurance which includes healthcare coverage. Trust me, a two-night stay in a Thai hospital adds up! Read Lonely Planet’s guide on how to choose the right travel insurance for more detailed advice.
Pack a medical kit
Don’t cobble together a last-minute medical kit filled with out of date medicine. Netdoctor has an exhaustive list of what to pack including oral rehydration salts, spare antibiotics and antihistamine (netdoctor.co.uk). If your kids are partial to a particular flavour of medicine then make sure you pack enough of it (she says, having spent hours trying to find strawberry-flavoured Panadol in the Philippines). Your medical kit should also include basic first aid items like plasters, scissors and antiseptic wipes.
Make a note of important information
Pack a file containing all your family’s medical information from blood types and immunisation records to allergies and details of any medication they regularly use. If you are travelling with glasses/contact lense wearers, have the optician write down the prescription for you.
Tactics when you're on the road
Whether it’s a plane, train or boat, if it’s filled with people, it’s teeming with germs. Whilst you may look slightly neurotic, get in the habit of wiping down surfaces (tray table, toilet seat) with an antibacterial wipe. Every parent should carry a bottle of hand sanitizer to slather on kids after a trip to the toilet and before any meal.
Carry spare plastic bags and wet wipes in case a member of your party feels sick. If you're in a cramped compartment, travelling long distance, get the kids to stand up and move around. Keep everyone hydrated with water and aim for regular toilet breaks, however unpleasant the conditions may be.
Pack plenty of healthy snacks and bottled water to dole out at all points of the journey. My go-to snacks are dried fruit, nuts, cereal bars, rice cakes and crackers. If you are travelling by train in a developing country, try not to be too seduced by the food vendors who climb aboard at each stop. Whilst it’s fun to try new foods, hygiene-wise it’s always best to eat food that has been prepared in front of your eyes. Have in the back of your mind this mantra from the World Health Organisation: ‘Boil it, peel it, cook it or forget it!’
If your itinerary includes a boat trip, keep your eyes peeled for signs of seasickness. If you know a member of the family is susceptible, have them take an anti-nausea pill. Motion sickness is worse on an empty stomach so eat a light meal beforehand.
When climbing aboard and disembarking a train, keep hold of little hands and make sure they don't lose their footing. It's also wise not to let kids copy the locals by hanging out of a window or doorway!
Classic health problems and what to do about them
- Travellers’ diarrhoea – The CDC estimates that 50% of international travellers will experience travellers’ diarrhoea. Symptoms include stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting and of course, trips to the bathroom. Keep your kids hydrated with plenty of water and oral rehydration salts. If they are fine to eat, offer complex carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes, pasta or bread. Monitor for signs of dehydration (lack of tears when crying, dry mouth and sunken eyes). If you spot any of these, seek medical attention immediately.
- Jetlag – Not only can jetlag lead to irritable people but it can also manifest itself in irritable bowels. Hydration through all parts of your journey is key. Once you arrive at your destination, try to get everyone on a local time schedule and exposed to daylight. This will help to reset the body clock.
- Ear infections – Germs in the swimming pool and open water can lead to ear infections. If you suspect your child has an ear infection, seek medical attention immediately as this may affect whether you can fly. For babies and toddlers who can’t tell you how they are feeling, signs include a high fever and ear tugging.
- Sunburn – If you’re travelling somewhere hot, try to minimize sun exposure, especially between 12pm and 2pm. Keep kids covered up and slathered in high factor suncream. If they do get sunburnt, apply an aftersun lotion and give ibuprofen to ease pain. If you suspect dehydration, seek medical attention.
- Bites and stings – In general bites and stings are relatively harmless, despite being itchy. If your child has been stung by a bee, scrape out the sting and wash with water. For mosquito bites, apply a calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream. If there are signs of infection (redness, pus, fever and vomiting), call the doctor.
- Travel sickness – If you have a child prone to travel sickness, try using an antihistamine such as Dramamine (given one hour before travel and every six hours during the trip).
- Blisters – Young kids complain about walking at the best of times but especially if those holiday sandals have caused blisters. Pack a blister kit and apply at the first sign of chapped skin.