Your skin is your best defence against all kinds of invaders, so taking care of wounds and infections is vital while on your travels. Just DON'T scratch, begs Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth…
Skin provides a superb defence against aggressive microbes and keeps out most creatures that would like to colonise us.It is also good at alerting us to possible attack.
Travel in warmer climes often puts you at risk of being stung, bitten or scratched, and sometimes infections will arise.
Itching is designed to make you swat away insects, but it may also be a response to a foreign protein: mosquito, tick and leech saliva or a worm beneath the surface.
The challenge is that scratching can encourage infection. A simple bug bite will – if left alone – naturally fade away. Cooling the skin helps ease itching, so have a tepid shower or relax in an air-conditioned room. If the skin is unbroken, applying a steroid cream (e.g. Eumovate) helps to suppress the itch.
Very itchy red tracks suggest a geography worm (aka larva migrans) and will need a prompt trip to a local doctor. Itching after swimming in a Rift Valley lake in East Africa might mean schistosomiasis (aka bilharzia), so if you are concerned, consult a doctor on returning home.
Inflammation and swelling suggests that the body is fighting an infection.
If the area affected is small, cleaning with soap and water, then using an antiseptic solution and elevating the affected part may be enough, but in the tropics it can also signal the need for a course of antibiotics.
This is especially likely if the red inflamed area is spreading and you feel generally unwell and/or have a fever. Take a day off, rest and find out about local health services.
Ooze also signifies infection. Yellow or green fluid oozing from a wound, scratch or bite – especially if the area smells bad – almost certainly requires you to see a doctor for antibiotics.
Cloxacillin, co-amoxiclav or, if you’re allergic to penicillin, erythromycin are most effective. If antibiotics aren’t available, vigorous twice-daily cleaning using a solution of water with potassium permanganate or dilute iodine might be enough.
Flaking and scaling is common in eczema and other allergic skin conditions, which can improve in hot climates (excessive sweating helps) or become much worse.
Generally, dry, flaky skin conditions are helped by using moisturiser. However, in the tropics the cause could be a fungal infection – especially if symptoms are in the skin creases – so try an antifungal cream such as miconazole.
Wearing loose-fitting 100% cotton clothes will help avoid the issue.
Colour changes can be alarming when you are travelling.
Bruises may appear and you won’t know how they arose, but travel predisposes you to these minor knocks. Jellyfish stings can leave dark marks for many months; mosquito bites for weeks.
Fungi tend to leech colour from the skin and leave light blotches; fungal skin infections are unsightly but pretty harmless and can be present for months or years. They become more obvious with a tan. Treatment can wait until you get home.
Caring for your skin means reasonable, not obsessive, cleaning, applying antiseptic to even trivial scratches and wounds, and fighting the urge to scratch.
Scratchers should pack a few antihistamine tablets. Washing in water with a bar of soap cleans the skin better and is less drying than using alcohol gels.
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