UK travel health issues

We brace ourselves for bugs and biters when we travel overseas, but what about health risks closer to home? Advice on how to stay safe in the UK

4 mins

We may no longer have malaria on our shores, but the UK isn’t devoid of dangers . As many of us take a break in Britain, it pays to be prepared for ticks, midges, jellyfish and (maybe, we hope…) a little bit of sunshine.

Combating biters

Most of us think of vector-borne diseases as exotic phenomena but we do have two nasty, homegrown infections spread by tick bites.

Fortunately, European tick-borne encephalitis isn’t present in the UK. However, Lyme disease is fairly common and there is a Scottish-border special called louping ill. No vaccines exist for these.

Both are acquired when a tick latches on from bushes or undergrowth in a place grazed by sheep or deer. The main defence is wearing cover-all clothes and applying repellent on any exposed skin. You can also proof clothes with permethrin or Lifesystems’ EX4 AntiMosquito Fabric Spray.

Check your body each evening – ticks have an astonishing ability to walk over skin without you being aware. They usually climb aboard from ground level, then clamber up a leg to settle into a warm, hairy corner – scrotum, groin, armpit or under a breast. Check these areas and remove any ticks promptly to greatly reduce the risk of disease transmission.

The good news is that anti-tick precautions also keep off midges, as well as most other things that fly and bite. DEET-based insect repellents work well against them. If visiting Scotland you could try out the new Smidge repellent and check the midge forecast.

Allergy alleviation

Allergic conditions such as asthma, hay fever and eczema are often unpredictable but can worsen when you head to new areas. Many are allergic to rape pollen – if so, keep away from any extensive areas of yellow fields.

If you react unpredictably to bites and allergens carry a non-sedating over-the-counter antihistamine (eg cetirizine or loratadine) for daytime use and consider taking a sedating preparation for nighttimes; the best need a prescription.

If the sniffles are the main symptom of hay fever then over-the-counter Beconase nasal spray works well. If itchy eyes drive you mad, try sodium cromoglycate drops. Anyone who is allergic to bee stings or other stimuli should carry a few antihistamine tablets and ask their GP whether they should be armed with an EpiPen.

Antihistamines can be useful if you get stung or bitten since they suppress the body’s reaction. Steroid creams and ointments (1% hydrocortisone for children or for the faces or genitals of adults; Eumovate for most other places) are also excellent for taking the itch out of insect bites, bee stings or even jellyfish attacks.

Survival by the sea


Our native shores do present some potential dangers. The greatest is, of course, drowning. People can be swept out to sea by rip tides or if they fall asleep on an airbed. Being drunk is a risk factor for drowning.

In Britain’s chilly seas even strong swimmers should remember that heavy meals need two hours to leave the stomach; swimming soon after eating leads to cramp and a higher risk of drowning.

Pay attention to any warnings or restrictions on bathing – they’ll be in place for safety reasons and may prevent you being hit by jet skis.

If the sun shines, sunscreens and hats are important. Sunscreens need to be replenished each year since last year’s bottle won’t protect you so well. Medium-grade sunscreens (SPF 15 to 25) are your best buy. All sunscreens need reapplication every few hours, and more frequently if they’ve been removed by sand or swimming.

Dangerous beasties


Unassuming little weever fish live along our southern shores, half buried in the sand and mud, with dorsal fins sticking up. Their spines are venomous; if you stand on one, expect intense pain – so bad that one Welsh fisherman allegedly cut off a toe to gain relief.

The most effective treatment is less drastic; the stung part needs to be immersed in hot water (45ºC) until the pain subsides. Because of these fish – and also the risk of stepping on broken glass, a rusty nail or a used hypodermic needle – it is best to wear something on your feet when strolling along the beach or swimming.

Threatening creatures including Portuguese Man o’ War (jellyfish) and the odd lost shark occasionally stray into British waters, but the species more commonly encountered is the intimidatingly huge but benign basking shark.

On a related note, the summer months are when we are most likely to feast on seafood, the food with the greatest risk of causing gastroenteritis. Cases of paralytic shellfish poisoning are also most common in the summer months. Properly cooked seafood is less likely to make you ill than raw. Take care if collecting your own food for free: nearby sewage outfalls can contaminate filter-feeding shellfish.

On land, anything large – especially if it has young, or you have a dog – should be treated with respect: even rams and pigs can cause significant injuries.

The great outdoors


Assess the risk of anything you do. Check whether tides might cut you off, or if the weather might close in. In Britain rescue teams generally don’t charge for the service they provide but that doesn’t give you licence to take unnecessary risks.

People relying on mobile phones to help them navigate or call for help can find themselves in areas without a signal. Tell others where you plan to go so someone will notice if you don’t return. If you dial 112 instead of 999 the nearest emergency call handler – even if in France or Holland – will respond.

Give a thought to what you leave behind after any trip. On our congested little island the drop-and-run approach to defecation is unacceptable. Poo left on a lovely sward of grass or secluded beach will sit for months to offend those who follow, yet excavating a small depression with your boot and burying your emissions will give small wildlife a treat, enhance nutrient recycling and preserve the view for all who follow.

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