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]

Ten bizarre travel diseases that can ruin your next vacation

travel diseasesOn some level, catching a weird disease or picking up a little-known tropical parasite on your travels gives you bragging rights. “Look at me, I’m so hardcore!” Trust me, I’ve been there. But with Multidrug-Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR TB) making headlines worldwide, I’d like to remind fellow travelers that these diseases are no joke, and even those of us with healthy immune systems and access to industrialized medicine aren’t impervious.

The reality is, you never know what you might be susceptible to. In my case, my doctors and medical research indicate that I may be lacking an enzyme that made me vulnerable to an extremely rare but serious tropical disease caused by the bacteria Bartonella bacilliformis, which causes Oroya Fever (and its precursor, Verruga Peruana). I’m still recovering from a three-year battle with the disease that has resulted in permanent organ damage because of a failure to protect myself against sand flies in the Amazon Basin region of Ecuador. Regular applications of DEET could have prevented that, as well as the various misdiagnoses of tuberculosis, histoplasmosis, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but that’s another story.

A lot of tropical and uncommon travel-related ailments are difficult to diagnose, and sometimes even more problematic to cure (if they don’t kill you, first). Statistically, however, most travelers–even if they’re in extremely sketchy parts of the world–will stay healthy if they take the necessary precautions. Having a trustworthy travel doctor is also helpful if you spend a lot of time in developing nations.
Being prepared before you leave home is key. You should never take travel wellness lightly, but don’t let fear ruin your trip. I certainly don’t follow every bit of medical advice out there (I honestly don’t see the point of traveling if not to eat epic quantities of street food.). If you’re going to be completely paranoid and don’t own a Hazmat suit, perhaps it’s better to stay home. But don’t ignore CDC warnings for recommended (or required) vaccinations, and if you know you’re going to be in a malarial or otherwise-dangerous insect-or-disease-inhabited region, prepare accordingly.

Just remember to do your research before you go, and remember that while it most likely won’t happen to you, it’s not impossible.

After the video (graphic, but it illustrates just how devastating TB can be, as well as provides important information on Multidrug-Resistant Tuberculosis), a gallery of bizarre diseases you’ll want to avoid during your travels.


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Top five immunizations for adventure travelers

immunizationsSpending a lot of money to get poked with a needle may not be at the top of your pre-trip to-do list, but it should be. While some countries require proof of certain immunizations before they theoretically permit entry (details later in this post), there are a couple of vaccinations all travelers should get, barring any prohibitive allergies.

Getting vaccinated greatly reduces or virtually eliminates the odds of contracting certain serious illnesses or travel-related diseases, and helps prevent the spread of contagions. This is especially critical in developing countries, where there is generally little in the way of preventative or active health care, and lack of sanitation provides a fertile breeding ground for disease. As is true at home, infants, children, the elderly, and immuno-compromised are at greatest risk.

I consulted with Dr. John Szumowski, Clinical Fellow of the University of Washington Medical Center’s Division of Allergy and Infectious Disease, for expert advice before compiling the following list. As he pointed out, it’s tricky to generalize which immunizations are most important, since it depends upon where you’re going, and what you’re doing there.

That said, all of the immunizations on this list are a good idea if you travel frequently to developing nations, even if it’s for business or budget travel. They are especially important to have if you eat street food or visit rural areas.

The top five, after the jump.

[Photo credit: Flickr user johnnyalive]immunizations1. Flu
With flu epidemics making annual headlines, there’s no reason not to get a flu shot. This is especially true if you fly frequently or use other forms of public transit. Think of an airplane as a flying petri dish; why risk ruining your trip, or exposing others if you’re coming down with something? If you have an underlying health condition such as asthma, diabetes, or other lung or heart disease, it’s of particular importance to get immunized.

2. Tetanus
I grew up on a ranch, so tetanus shots have always been a part of my life. Many people don’t think about getting a tetanus vaccine, however, and as Dr. Szumowski points out, “It’s under-appreciated, and worth getting prior to travel given challenges of obtaining adequate, timely wound care.” Beats lockjaw, any day.

3. Hepatitis A
“Hepatitis A is common and can occasionally be quite serious,” cautions Dr. Szumowski. “For anyone with underlying liver disease (e.g. chronic hepatitis B or C) this is an especially important vaccination.”

4. Polio
Polio hasn’t been fully eradicated in parts of the developing world, so an inactivated poliovirus booster is important when traveling to areas where it’s still a problem, such as Nigeria and India.
immunizations
5. Typhoid
This vaccine can be taken either orally or by injection. Be aware that you must avoid mefloquine (an anti-malarial) or antibiotics within 24 hours of the vaccine doses.

Additional vaccines
Depending upon your destination, you may also require, by law, a Yellow Fever (tropical South America and sub-Saharan Africa), or Japanese Encephalitis/JE vaccination (parts of Asia and the Western Pacific). Dr. Szumowski recommends JE vaccine if you’re traveling for an extended (over one month) period in rural areas of affected countries.

Rabies vaccine isn’t usually recommended, but if you travel extensively in developing nations or have/expect frequent contact with animals, it’s a good idea. I’ve had a couple of canine-related experiences that have sold me on the idea. Dr. Szumowski notes that “excellent wound care and post-bite medical evaluation are still needed,” even if you’ve had a rabies pre-exposure vaccination.

Tips
It’s critical to allow ample time before your trip to allow the protective effects of the vaccines to establish themselves. Go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccinations page for more information on what’s required and epidemic updates, if applicable. Often, your GP, internist, or local drugstore can provide some of these vaccinations; others require a specialist. For locations of a travel medicine clinic near you, click here.

Carry your immunization card with you as proof of vaccination, and email yourself a scanned copy, as well. The same goes for copies of your medical insurance cards.

Practice good hygiene and get enough rest, inasmuch as possible, while traveling, to maintain a healthy immune system. Airborne and Emergen-C are great immunoboosters to carry with you.

Consider travel insurance if you’ll be in a remote or sketchy area, or engaging in high-risk outdoor pursuits.

[Photo credits: swine flu, Flickr user ALTO CONTRASTE Edgar AVG. (away); polio, Flickr user Cambodia Trust;