7 mins

Travel health: where the worst bugs hide

Germs lurking on door handles, bacteria in your bed… Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth arms you with a mind map of travel nasties – and helps you avoid the possible perils

The buffet / restuarant / cafe / bar can hide plenty of nasties! (Dreamstime)

Location: The hotel bedroom

Possible perils: Fortunately there’s no risk of acquiring STIs from your bed linen, even if it looks pre-used. But it is possible to pick up crab lice if the sheets are still warm, and bed bugs are commonly acquired in hotels all over the world; both these critters cause itching. Crabs are cleared by applying a lotion from the pharmacy; bed bug bites hurt but the actual bugs won’t stay on you – treat as you would mosquito bites.

Poorly maintained gas appliances can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning so don’t sleep with a gas fire burning. Nausea and headaches are early signs. If the room water heater is gas-powered and looks or sounds faulty or old, see if you can find out when it was last serviced or ask to move to another room. Choosing a hotel with mesh screens over the window means natural air can circulate, which is healthiest.

Precautions: If your bed looks slept in, ask the hotel for clean sheets. If attacked by bed bugs, pull the bed away from the wall and sleep with the light on: it makes the bugs flee. Do tell the hotel staff – they may be able to spray your room, or move you. Suss the fire escape route from your room; check if it is padlocked. Don’t overload the electrics by plugging lots into one socket – it might cause a fire within the wall. And don’t smoke.

Location: The hotel / shared bathroom

Possible perils: Diarrhoea-causing microbes are likely to lurk on the toilet flush and door handle. Even the soap or sanitising-gel dispenser could be contaminated, so wash hands thoroughly. Theoretically you could even collect microbes from the TV remote.

The shower and the air-con can harbour Legionnaires’ disease, although it is frailer people and smokers who are most likely to suffer symptoms. Even if there’s a lot of grime in the bathroom, it is unlikely to harm you, but be alert to slipping on the slime.

Precautions: Wash hands with soap (old soap is OK) after ‘performing’ on the loo and before eating anything. Soap and running water cleans better than sanitising gel. Run the shower for a few minutes before bathing to flush out potential Legionnaires’.

Location: The buffet / café / restaurant

Possible perils: Stale food, cold dishes, seafood and lukewarm food can harbour microbes that cause food poisoning. Dirty cutlery is less likely to make you ill, nor is there much evidence that flies landing on food does much harm.

Precautions: Shun cold seafood and salads; choose hot soups (which are surprisingly refreshing even in the tropics) and cooked-to-order food. Reject food that is only just warm or meat dishes that don’t look cooked; vegetarian foods will be safer than those containing meat.

If you suspect the jug of water on the table is unfiltered, add a water sterilising tablet. Pick a busy, popular restaurant.

Location: The bar

Possible perils: Salty or dry bar snacks may have been handled by others but are unlikely to make you ill. Some bars serve club sandwiches containing stale food. People travelling alone may be susceptible to sexual predators but they are also more likely to have positive encounters with brilliant well-meaning people so it is important to have your eyes open and keep (reasonably) sober. Spirits are more likely to harm you than weaker forms of alcohol.

Precautions: If you’re alone in a bar and want to stay alone, take a book or Kindle. Some women wear a wedding ring (although this isn’t a sign of being married in Hindu culture, for example). Take care about accepting drinks from strangers. If you are going to get drunk, do it in the company of people you trust.

Local moonshine is unpredictable and can be very dangerous so stick to what you know. Be careful of experimenting. Intoxication leads to accidents, drowning, rape, robbery and arrest.

Location: The planes, trains and buses

Possible perils: Being packed into a plane, train, bus or cruise ship puts you at risk of catching airborne microbes – the common cold in particular; chickenpox is a risk to those who aren’t immune. Vomiting viruses can also be a problem and there is a slight risk of catching serious infections including meningitis. Motion sickness is possible on unfamiliar styles of travel.

Precautions: Be as fully immunised as possible. If going on long flights or if expecting to be crammed onto packed buses or trains, consider the flu jab. Dirty seats and handrails will give you no grief as long as you wash your hands before eating. Washing is better than hand gels or wipes. Careful hand-washing reduces the chances of catching a vomiting virus.

People susceptible to motion sickness should take pills (cinnarizine started three to four hours before travel, and repeated every eight hours) or prescribable patches.

Location: The city street

Possible perils: Encountering faeces on the pavement is perhaps an indication that you’re in a polluted place. Air pollution can make the eyes sting or exacerbate asthma. Rubbish-scrounging dogs can be aggressive. Muggers are on the look out for people who don’t know where they’re going. Where traffic is on the ‘wrong’ side of the road or is simply chaotic, you might step in front of a car.

Precautions: Research the weather before you travel – pollution is usually worst just before the rains. On the street, take time to look and check. Know where you are going. Keep valuables hidden. Consider rabies immunisation.

Top tip: Stay sane

It is possible to become too careful on your travels. Try to distinguish real health hazards from things that are simply unaesthetic. Ensure you're fully insured on your travels: remember, Wanderlust readers get 5% off travel insurance – and subscribers get 10% off!

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