How To Stay Healthy On Spring Break

mezcalWhether you’re a beach-bound college student or a middle-aged couple headed to the Rockies for some end-of-season snow, spring break presents the same health risks every year. Fortunately, they’re all easily preventable by using common sense and following a few basic rules.

This year, here’s hoping your only souvenirs are great photos and even better memories.

Hangover helpers
You could just watch your alcohol consumption, or try drinking a glass of water in between drinks, but I hear you laughing. Try to maintain, especially if you’re in a foreign country, traveling alone or at altitude. If I wake up with a hangover that not even a truckload of Tylenol can cure (it’s also not good for your liver when taken in combination with booze), I swear by coconut water, which is loaded with electrolytes. Don’t forget to consume regular water, as well, and get something in your stomach that’s full of complex carbs and protein, not grease (sorry).

Adjust for altitude
Regardless of your physical condition, altitude sickness can strike anyone. Give yourself a couple of days to acclimate, hydrate frequently and take ibuprofen, aspirin or even Diamox if you’re really feeling bad. Watch your alcohol consumption! One drink has the effect of two (see above if you ignore this advice).

Prevent food- or waterborne illness
Far be it from me to tell anyone to avoid street food, unless they have a compromised immune system, or are very old or young. You can safely enjoy street eats in foreign countries, as long as you know what to look for. If a stall or vendor doesn’t have a line, or their sanitation practices are poor, give it a miss; the same rule applies to restaurants (just because gringos flock there doesn’t mean it’s safe). As for water, I avoid ice cubes in rural areas and from street vendors, and always check bottled water in developing nations to make sure the seal isn’t broken. Don’t forget to travel with Imodium, because nothing is ever foolproof.

Save your skin
Yes, you need to wear sunscreen, even if it’s cloudy, rainy or snowing, and you need to reapply it thoroughly every two hours. Wear a minimum SPF 30 broad spectrum product. Ask your dermatologist for referrals; not all brands are created equal.

Be self-aware
Being drunk n’ sloppy is never attractive, but it can also be downright dangerous. Know your limit, stick with you friends if you’re not traveling solo, and if you (ahem) get separated, maintain phone contact, let them know where you are and who you’re with, and when they can expect you back. We’ve all had a spring fling, but safety should always come first.

[Photo credit: Flickr user dbrekke]@

Food poisoning! What to watch out for in 2012

food poisoningFor many people–myself included–one of the most enjoyable aspects of travel is experiencing how other cultures eat. Even if you’re only traveling as far as the other end of the state, chances are there’s a regional specialty, street food, farmers market, or restaurant that’s a destination in its own right.

Sometimes, however, the pickings are slim, or no matter how delicious the food, the odds are just stacked against you. As Anthony Bourdain put it on a recent episode of his new series, The Layover, “…if there’s not a 50-percent chance of diarrhea, it’s not worth eating.”

Gross, perhaps, but gluttonous travelers know there’s truth in those words. Bourdain happened to be referring to a late-night drunk binge at one of Amsterdam‘s infamous FEBO fast food automats (above), so with that in mind, I present this photographic homage to the things we eat on the road, despite knowing better. Walk softly, and carry a big bottle of Imodium

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[Photo credit: Flickr user .waldec]

Travel health gift guide: what to get the incessant wanderer on your list

travel healthTravel junkies are a special breed. Only a very distinct personality type gets a rush from being on the road as much as possible, or relishes the discomforts and situations most people go to lengths to avoid. Homesickness is a foreign concept.

I know, because I too suffer from this malady. It started early, because I have a vivid memory of bursting into tears when I was six or seven, after we dropped a friend off at the airport.

“What’s wrong?” my dad asked. “I’m sad because we’re not getting on an airplane,” was my reply (ironic given my aviophobia, which had its onset about 12 years later).

A paralyzing fear of air travel hasn’t stopped me from roaming, however. So, whether you have a loved one who practically lives at Club Med or one actually enjoys sleeping on the ground or in janky Third World hostels rife with cockroaches…lucky you. You have a travel addict in the family or as a friend.

One experience incessant wanderers don’t go looking for? Illness or injury. While not inevitable, the more time you spend abroad, the greater the likelihood of suffering from anything from an infected bug bite or Bali Belly to…worse. But as I’ve always said, you can get hit by a bus crossing the street.

Of course travel isn’t inherently unsafe, but there are precautionary measures that minimize the odds of having health issues on the road. Below, my road-tested gift picks for frequent travelers (especially those who visit sub-tropical or tropical climes) and outdoor enthusiasts.

SteriPEN or LifeStraw portable water filter
Reasons why one of these is a worthwhile investment:

  • Saves money on purchasing bottled water in developing nations/places without potable water
  • Better for the environment (see above)
  • You can contract giardia or other nasties from improperly “bottled” water (trust me)
  • You don’t have to be out in the backcountry to have a potable water shortage; owning a filtration system is good insurance you stay hydrated and healthy, even in the city.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fauxrealphotos]travel healthTravel first aid kit
Even infrequent travelers should carry basic first-aid supplies: band-aids, gauze pads, Neosporin, OTC meds, etc.. Personalize your gift by tailoring a pre-purchased kit (REI is a great place to find different types and sizes) to suit the interests and needs of your recipient.

Wilderness first aid class
CPR or a general first aid class is a good idea for anyone, but if any of your loved ones live for backcountry pursuits or traveling off the beaten path, a WFA course can be a lifesaver–literally. Look one up in your area through the American Red Cross.

Controlled-release DEET and/or Insect Shield apparel
There was a time, several years ago, when I shunned DEET unless I was in a malarial region. Why, I asked myself, would I willingly douse myself in a pesticide? Why would I inflict said poison upon the environment?

That philosophy is all well and good until you get bitten by something harboring an infectious evil (in my case, it was sandflies carrying the Bartonella bacilliformis bacterium) that anti-malarials can’t prevent. Also note that malaria prophylaxis is not without considerable side-effects and may not protect you against certain strains of the disease. Be sure to talk to an infectious disease, tropical medicine, or travel physician experienced with actual working experience in these regions.

These days, I’m all about DEET if I’m traveling somewhere with potentially harmful biting insects, especially now that there are controlled-release versions on the market (there are various brands on the market; Sawyer Products is highly recommended). One application is good for up to 12 hours.

As for clothes, I love my Insect Shield long sleeve button-up shirt from ExOfficio. Good for up to 70 washings (after which you still have a good-looking, lightweight travel top), bug-repelling garments are treated with permethrin, EPA-registered, and free of toxic-smelling fumes.

Sun protective clothing
As you likely know, heat exhaustion or heat stroke can be serious; even fatal. In addition to a good sunblock, sunglasses, and a hat, sun protective clothing is a seriously smart idea for outdoor types. Once again, I recommend ExOfficio, or REI own brand, which will save you a few dollars.

Bear bell or spray
Google “2011 grizzly attacks.” ‘Nuff said.
travel health
SmartWool
socks
What they say in the military is true: you gotta take care of your feet. Once your dogs go, you’re SOL in the backcountry or tropics. Keeping feet clean and dry (and warm, if applicable) is of utmost importance (at the very least, fellow travelers will appreciate your hygiene efforts). These moisture-wicking, stench-resistant socks are invaluable even if you’re just planning an extended trip.

Ibex woolies
Getting chilled can quickly become serious or fatal, and hypothermia prevention in the form of extra layers is key. These 100% merino wool underlayers from Vermont-based outfitter Ibex are the bomb. Comfortable, warm, moisture-wicking, and seriously odor-proof (anything that remains fit to wear in public after a month-long backpacking trip from the Andes to the Amazon–sans laundry–is a product I heartily endorse). Plus, they come in cute stripey designs as well as solids.

[Photo credit: Band-aids, Flickr user m.gifford, feet, Flickr user Cin]

How Deep Vein Thrombosis Develops

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]

The Ultimate Travel First Aid Kit

Top fifteen items to have in your travel first aid kit

travel first aidEven if the worst travel-related malady you’ve suffered is a touch of turistas, it pays to pack at least a few first aid essentials in your luggage. If you carry nothing more than Band-Aids, moleskin, Neosporin, and Pepto-Bismol tablets, you’re set for minor emergencies that might otherwise derail a day of sightseeing.

If, however, you travel frequently/do adventure travel/spend time in developing nations, it pays to have a fully-loaded first aid kit. It’s no substitute should you get seriously ill or injured, but its contents can likely stabilize you until you’re able to get medical assistance

You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a kit, either. You can pick one up for as little as $12 at REI, and augment it as needed. The most expensive thing is filling prescriptions for antibiotics (just in case) before you leave home. Cipro is really pricey, but broad-spectrum drugs like Doxycycline are very inexpensive.

Below, my picks for travel first aid kit essentials.

1. Band-aids/gauze pads/moleskin (for blisters)

2. Surgical tape
Use it to hold dressings in place, or to strap sprains or strains. A roll of this saved my ankle after a bad fall while backpacking.

[Photo credit: Flickr user ffi]travel first aid3. Sewing needle and safety pins
Sterilize and use to drain blisters, remove splinters, or make a makeshift sling.

4. Small mirror
Useful if you get something in your eye or have a facial injury. If you’re the outdoorsy type, it’s an emergency kit essential for signaling should you get lost.

5. Prescription drugs
All of your regular prescriptions, as well as antibiotics or other meds prescribed by your doctor. Be sure to keep them in their original bottles, and carry copies of your prescriptions with you.

6. OTC drugs
Imodium, Pepto-Bismol tablets, antihistimines, Pepcid, ibuprofen, eye drops. For women: Uristat and an OTC or prescription for yeast infections. Comprehensivey, these meds cover a wide range of ailments, from food-borne illness to allergies, but reserve the Imodium only for emergency situations where you must travel (it’s a potent anti-diarrheal).

7. EpiPen
This isn’t just for those with known anaphylactic allergies. When you’re traveling abroad, you never know what might trigger a reaction; it’s also possible to develop a sensitivity to things you haven’t previously had a problem with.
travel first aid
8. Alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer
Sterilize your hands, implements like tweezers, even wounds, if necessary. Sanitizer is something you should be in the habit of carrying when you travel, regardless.

9. Tweezers and non-safety nail scissors
Remove splinters and insect stingers, cut surgical tape or bandages; there are endless uses for these two.

10. Thermometer
If you develop a sustained fever of 100.4 or higher, it’s time to seek medical attention.

11. Electrolyte powder packets and Emergen-C
If you’re suffering severe diarrhea or vomiting, it’s absolutely essential you rehydrate and replenish electrolytes. If you have access to Gatorade, you can down that, along with bottled (if necessary) water. I use Airborne and Emergen-C after long flights and at other times I need to keep my resistance up, or if my immune system is taxed.

12. Antibiotic ointment and hydrocortisone cream
Don’t underestimate the importance of these two, especially if you’re traveling in the tropics, where things tend to fester, or you have a coral cut, serious blister, sting, bite, or rash.
travel first aid
13. Matches
Sterilize needles or safety pins; matches are also an essential for wilderness emergency kits. Store in old film canister or Rx bottle to keep dry. You can additionally waterproof by painting the tips with nail polish.

14. Ziploc bags
You never know when these will come in handy. You can make an impromptu ice pack, store creams and ointment in them to prevent spillage, use them as an extra layer to keep meds dry, etc..

15. Mini first aid or wilderness safety manual
If you’re traveling long-term or spending lots of time outdoors, you’ll find this useful at some point. Many first aid kits come with one.

[Photo credits: knee, Flickr user Sukianto; Pepto-Bismol, Flickr user chris.corwin;dressing, Flickr user tiny_packages]