In the excitement of booking a trip, all thoughts of your health often go out the window – Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth offers her handy pointers on how to prepare for any adventure
Man with a bug net (Dreamstime)
It always pays to find out what the climate will be like in your chosen destination, what the maximum and minimum temperatures will be, and also the altitude range, as this will often inform what you pack. Nights can get surprisingly cold, even in the tropics and especially at high altitude.
Try to also get an idea of how bug-infested your destination will be (guidebooks are a good place to start looking), and whether you’ll need to cover up for climatic, entomological or cultural reasons. And ask yourself: does the city you are flying to have an air pollution problem that might affect you?
Then there’s basic safety. Be sure to check for any recent local travel warnings – the US State Department isuseful for this. You should also view the relevant destination page on the UK’s FCO site. People continue to wander into unsafe destinations through ignorance and it is worth knowing, or at least being forewarned, about what you might be getting into.
Pharmacist and patient at pharmacy (Dreamstime)
Another piece of homework worth doing is on local laws and what restrictions there are on crossing borders with prescription-only medicines. You may not consider yourself to be a drug tracker, but if you are carrying diazepam, to keep you calm on a flight, or codeine for your backache, there is a chance that you could be detained.
Travellers have got into trouble with the authorities in the past – even occasionally during transit – by carrying addictive prescription drugs with them. Opiates (tramadol, codeine), benzodiazepines (diazepam, temazepam) and sleeping pills (zopiclone, zolpidem) seem to cause the most problems.
To prevent misunderstandings, bring some documentation that confirms your medical need for carrying medicines. I often give my patients a brief summary print out from their notes that confirms what I’ve prescribed, which I sign and stamp. Repeat prescription lists might also do the trick, and keeping the meds in their original pharmacy pack is also wise, as this should have your name on it.
Another drug to be careful of is alcohol. Take special care when drinking in public in Muslim countries. Know too that drink-driving regulations are comparatively lax in the UK. In many countries, including the European states of Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic, having any alcohol in your blood while driving is an arrestable offence.
If in doubt as to the rules, the US State Department website (see ‘Making a plan’) has entries for each country on its ‘Foreign travel advice’ pages, while its ‘Local laws and customs’ sections make for interesting and informative reading.
Girl with asthma (Dreamstime)
If you often have to take prescription medicines (maybe you need a course of antibiotics for an infection, for example), you may want to bring a just-in-case course. For example, if you have been asthmatic in the past, consider packing an inhaler, in case air pollution is bad on arrival.
It also pays to know what suits you and what doesn’t. If you are allergic to penicillin, do you know that this precludes taking amoxicillin, flucloxicillin and Augmentin?
NHS rules mean that just-in-case medicines required for travel are generally available only on a private prescription, even if you are exempt from prescription charges. The NHS also usually only funds up to two months of medication at a time; if you are off on a long trip, you might need private prescriptions for, say, six months of tablets. Pharmacy charges for such prescriptions are variable, so it is worth shopping around.
While medical care in the European Union is currently covered by your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC; check you have one and that it is in date), it is wise to take out travel insurance to cover other expenses, such as evacuation. Declare everything or you risk not being covered; many policies don’t cover trips above certain altitudes or extreme sports.
Sun lotion, sunglasses and hat (Dreamstime)
Have a think about what you need to buy. I suggest one or two good water bottles. Know their volume so that you can work out how much purifier to add later and also keep track of your fluid intake. I often travel with two one-litre bottles.
Remember to replenish your repellent and sunscreen stash; the latter’s shelf life is usually about a year. Sunglasses bought abroad may not be UV protective, so buy in the UK beforehand.
Also stock up on a few paracetamol as well as antihistamines (certirizine or loratadine) and Steristrips for a minimalist First Aid kit.
When people think of travel health, many assume that organising jabs is just about or a private travel clinic, but you will need to allow time. Practice nurses don’t prioritise injections for holidays over diabetes care, for example, and even private clinics can get booked up.
Some courses of injections require a couple of months to complete, so the sooner you make your first appointment the better, although accelerated schedules can be arranged. It is worth keeping a spreadsheet of your immunisations, as it is easy to lose record cards, especially if they are done by different clinics. Whoever you see, you’ll save money if you check out the health requirements for your destination before attending the clinic. The best website for this is the NHS (fitfortravel.nhs.uk); use it to find out about potential problems such as malaria risk.
Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth isn’t a planner by nature, but before any trip she always checks the websites mentioned. Her author website is www.wilson-howarth.com
Main image: Woman packing her bag (Dreamstime)
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