Travel Smarter 2012: Travel tips for health and wellness

Films like “Contagion” (which I very much enjoyed, and not just because Gwyneth Paltrow bites it within the first 10 minutes) instill a paranoia in the public consciousness about the hazards of air travel. It’s true, however, that most public transportation is the equivalent of a mobile petri dish; one can’t deny the inherent germiness lurking within. Subsequently, antibacterial hand gel is my new best friend.

There are other quasi-self-inflicted, travel-related maladies: neck and back pain, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), infectious disease, foodborne illness, stress–all of which kind of make you wonder why we travel in the name of relaxation, but I digress.

For many, myself included, part of the thrill of recreational travel is the element of risk involved, even if said danger involves nothing more than scarfing down a few street tacos. Regardless of why you travel, there are always new products on the market designed to make your trip more comfortable, or minimize your chances of getting sick. New research on the hazards and benefits of travel also keep us informed about what we can do to stay healthier on the road.

Below are my picks for making travel in 2012 a little less treacherous:

1. Reduce your risk of DVT
New studies show that choosing the window seat on a long flight can increase your chances of developing DVT. A theoretical DVT risk known as “economy class syndrome” (how’s that for an “f-you” to airlines?) has been debated for years, and attributed to the lack of legroom in coach.

Now, however, the American College of Chest Physicians have determined that the real issue is that window-seat fliers have limited opportunities to walk and stretch their legs during lengthy flights, which can lead to potentially fatal blood clots that may travel to the lungs (pulmonary embolism). There are a number of factors that contribute to one’s risk of DVT including age, preexisting health conditions, certain medications, and recent surgery, but even if you don’t fit these criteria, you should always try to get out of your seat and/or do some stretching exercises and leg movements once an hour during long flights. In other words, consider the aisle the path to clot-free veins.

2. Time-release DEET
Some people have no problem dousing themselves in insecticide, personal health and environmental side effects be damned. I used to silently sneer at those people while I sat around the campfire, my unprotected skin providing nutrients to legions of winged, blood-sucking creatures. What were a few bites (Note: it was never just a few bites; try dozens) compared to not getting cancer or maintaining the purity of the local watershed?

Then I got sick as a result of deadly bacteria-harboring sandflies, and now I’m one of those people who understand why DEET exists. I still don’t like it–it’s definitely not something I, nor the CDC, recommend using with abandon–but it’s critical for protecting yourself from mosquitoes, sandflies, ticks, and other potentially harmful insects, in conjunction with protective attire such as long socks, long-sleeved shirts, and pants (you can also purchase insect-repellent clothing). Note that I’m not taking into account malarial conditions, in which case you should be supplementing your DEET applications with a doctor-prescribed anti-malarial drug.

I was thrilled when I recently discovered controlled release DEET at my neighborhood travel store. Sawyer® Premium Controlled Release Insect Repellent is designed to “reduce the rate of DEET absorption” by 67% per application, and “extend the duration of its effectiveness.” This 20% DEET lotion is also odorless, so you don’t have to huff noticeably toxic fumes all day.

3. Hummingbird Lumbar Pillow
If you have existing back problems or an epic backpacking adventure planned, this little baby from innovative gear company Hummingbird is the bomb. Measuring 7″ x 14″, it weighs just 3.5 ounces, rolls or packs flat, and will keep your lower back happy while camping, or riding a Third World bus sans shock absorbers on a rutted highway with potholes large enough to swallow a Mini Cooper.

4. Simply Being Guided Meditation app
I’m way too ADD to meditate, but this suggestion came to me from my Gadling colleague, and fellow meditation-phobe, McLean Robbins. She loves this app, which runs through a brief series of relaxation exercises. As McLean says, “Perfect for shutting out the world on a terrible plane ride or easing into sleep in an unfamiliar hotel bed.” The app is available for iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, and Android.

5. Maqui berry
Move over, açaí, there’s a new free-radical fighter in town. Chilean maqui berry, which is FDA-approved and contains the highest ORAC (a system of measure for antioxidants) level in the world, has hit the U.S. Only a few companies manufacture it, but I recommend Isla Natura brand (Full disclosure: the company is owned by a friend of mine, which–in addition to maqui’s health benefits–is why I feel comfortable touting this product). Maqui (Aristotelia chilensis) is indigenous to southern Chile and was traditionally used by the Mapuche Indians as a medicinal aid.

Isla Natura’s USDA and EU-certified organic (Fair Trade certification pending) wild fruits are harvested by hand, dried, ground, and sold in eight-ounce packets. Use one tablespoon in smoothies or on top of yogurt or oatmeal as a daily dietary supplement, but also consider it an immune booster for when you’re traveling.

Bonus: you’ll avoid the high sugar content of Emergen-C, and the “licking a dirt floor” flavor of açaí, and Isla Natura provides employment to local indigenous families at its small Chiloe processing plant. Travel-friendly capsules will be available in April; go to the company’s website for information on scientific studies. To order, click here.

[flickr image via viajar24h.com]

Top five things to look for in a travel doctor, and why you should have one

travel doctorsDespite writing about food and adventure travel for a living, I used to be somewhat blasé about the concept of travel medicine. Multiple incidents of Giardia/dysentery/traveler’s diarrhea/full-body outbreaks of mosquito and sand fly bites just taught me to carry a serious stash of antibiotics in my first-aid kit. At least I’ve always been conscientious about travel immunizations and educating myself about the primary diseases indigenous to my destination.

When you’re young and healthy, it seems silly to have a travel medicine specialist. Although this article is primarily directed at adventure travelers, odds are, the worst thing you’ll come home with is a backpack full of crappy souvenirs. But no one’s invincible, and should you require a specialist for something not responding to conventional treatment or with progressive symptoms, time is of the essence. Many “exotic” diseases progress rapidly, and can cause irreversible damage or death if not properly diagnosed and treated. Even with incurable diseases, the earlier you catch them, the easier it will be to manage symptoms and prevent them for worsening.

No, I’m not a doctor, although I come from a medical family. But I got seriously schooled after visiting Ecuador two years ago. After a fantastic month of adventure activities in remote parts of the Andes and Amazon Basin, I fell seriously ill the last day my trip. Two years of at-times crippling symptoms, 10 CT scans, five medical facilities, dozens of specialists, four surgical procedures, two surgeries, one cancer diagnosis, and near-medical bankruptcy later, I’ve become an expert at being my own advocate.

My infectious disease doctor believes that I contracted a form of bartonellosis called Oroya Fever after being bitten by sand flies. The good news: My health is currently stable, but we don’t know if the disease is in remission or not. But I have permanent cognitive damage, scarring or tumors on most of my internal organs, and intermittent arthritis. But believe me, I feel lucky.

I don’t want anyone to go through the health and medical nightmare I’ve endured, so I’ve compiled a list of essentials in a travel medicine doctor. Ergo, number one with a bullet:

1. Is he/she a travel or tropical medicine specialist?
Pre-bartonella, I used an internist as my GP/prescriber of antibiotics. If you can find an internist, gastroenterologist, or infectious disease doctor who is also a specialist in travel medicine, that’s a huge plus.travel doctors 2. Does he/she have personal experience traveling or practicing in developing nations?
There are a lot of practicioners who aren’t globally aware, so to speak. You can’t diagnose what you don’t understand, know about, or have first-hand experience with. Period.

3. Is he/she a good listener and empathetic?
It’s difficult to find these qualities in any doctor, especially in today’s medical climate. But it’s imperative to find someone you can communicate with, and who understands what you’re going through if you’re suffering from a mystery travel ailment. Don’t settle, even if you need to travel to another state or country to seek treatment (what stumps doctors here is often commonplace in the country of origin).

4. Does he/she have a good network of colleagues in multiple specialties (including travel/tropical medicine) to consult for additional opinions?
My current mantra is to seek a third opinion, from at least two different medical facilities. That, and to have a travel physician who actively consults colleagues and does additional research to assist with a diagnosis and/or treatment. My infectious disease doctor talked to specialists at a medical school in Peru on my behalf, and even tracked down a relevant medical paper from 1897 as he honed in on a diagnosis. And while I wouldn’t consider it a deal-breaker if the answer is no, see if your doctor is an active and participating member of the International Society of Travel Medicine.
travel doctors
5. Does he/she return your calls/provide you with email, pager, or office number so you can get in touch directly?
I’ve learned that a good doctor who is invested in your recovery will provide an open line of contact to address questions, concerns, and exchange pertinent information. Tip: Please don’t abuse this privilege. Physicians work insanely long hours, under constant stress. And don’t expect to hear back immediately if you leave a non-urgent message; be realistic. A couple of days, fine (many specialists aren’t in clinic every day). A week? Make a polite follow-up.

Whether or not you end up getting a travel doctor, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) provides loads of useful information, including a directory of global travel medicine clinics with English-speaking staff, and a destination-specific travel health planner. And depending upon what you plan to do on your trip, where you’re traveling, and your financial situation, you may want to invest in travel insurance.

[Photo credits: blood transfusion, Flickr user CarynNL;patient, Flickr user kk+; legs, Laurel Miller]

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