Common Travel Health Risks

April 17, 2014
Laura Joszt

For most Americans, summer is vacation time; however, little else can ruin a trip like getting sick. Often, this is as small as a runny nose and a cough, but sometimes the illnesses travelers pick up can be far more serious.

For most Americans, summer is vacation time; however, little else can ruin a trip like getting sick. Often, this is as small as a runny nose and a cough—likely picked up in the confined space of the airplane or in a hotel room—but sometimes the illnesses travelers pick up can be far more serious.

Some travel destinations increase the chances of people being stricken by certain illnesses, and sometimes simply planning ahead can protect travelers from diseases. However, just 40% of travelers visited with a health professional before going on vacation, regardless of the region visited, according to Medscape. Furthermore less 20% of travelers who contracted illnesses preventable by vaccines had seen a healthcare provider prior to the trip.

Roughly a third (34%) of travelers reported a gastrointestinal infection after travel, making it the most common illness. Dengue is common among those returning from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, while people who traveled to Africa can get Malaria.

According to Medscape, the regions where travelers most commonly acquire illnesses are Asia (32.6%) and sub-Saharan Africa (26.7%).

Here are some of the most common illnesses, and, if possible, ways to prevent catching them.

Norovirus

Cruise ships are hotbeds for the norovirus. Within the last month alone, passengers and crew on 3 separate cruise ships got sick by stomach illness, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recently, 700 people had the norovirus on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship.

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Symptoms

Similar to the flu, the symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.

Prevention and treatment

There is actually no way to prevent the spread of the norovirus, which tends to strike whenever there are large groups of people gathered in enclosed spaces. The virus can be ingested from contaminated food or water, or it can be spread through contact with an infected person. It can take up to 2 weeks for symptoms to appear.

According to the CDC, it’s nearly impossible to tell if infected people or contaminated food or water caused an outbreak.

Sun poisoning

While sun poisoning isn’t as serious as some of the other illnesses on the list, it is incredibly common despite the fact that it is also one of the most easily preventable sicknesses. Sometimes people aren’t used to how strong the sun is in a new location, or they become so busy laying on the beach, swimming, hiking, etc., that it simply slips their minds to protect themselves from the sun.

Symptoms

Sun poisoning is far worse than simple sunburn. People with sun poisoning experience red skin, blisters, itchiness, swelling, fever/chills, nausea, dizziness and dehydration.

Prevention and treatment

Suntan lotion. Apply it properly and often and take cover under shade, and sun poisoning can be avoided.

Once someone has sun poisoning, he or she can treat it by drinking plenty of water and applying cold compresses.

Traveler’s diarrhea

The most common offender of this stomach and intestinal infection is the bacteria E. coli. TD can last up to 7 days, occurs because of unsanitary handling of food, and is the most common illness affecting travelers, according to the CDC. Somewhere between 20% and 50% of international travelers are affected by TD each year, and regions where travelers are more likely to get TD are developing countries in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Symptoms

In addition to diarrhea, travelers will experience nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, bloating, fever, and malaise. While symptoms begin abruptly, most cases of TD resolve in a day or 2 without treatment.

Prevention and treatment

Avoid eating raw or under-cooked meat or seafood. Know the state of local water, and if it is not safe to drink, use bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth. Be sure that food from street vendors is cooked, and decline any fruits that cannot be peeled or haven’t been cooked thoroughly.

TD is often resolved without specific treatment, but it is recommended to replace lost fluids and electrolytes. Antibiotics might be necessary if TD is particularly aggressive.

Chikungunya

The chikungunya virus is transmitted to people by mosquitoes. While outbreaks have been reported in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, in late 2013, the virus was found in the Caribbean for the first time. In 2007, there was an outbreak in Ravenna, Italy.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms are fever and joint pain, but affected travelers may also experience headache, muscle pain, joint swelling, or rash.

Prevention and treatment

There is currently no vaccine or medicine to treat chikungunya virus infection, according to the CDC. The best travelers can do is prevent mosquito bites by using insect repellent, wearing long sleeves and pants, and staying in places with air conditioning or that use window and door screens.

Marigot. In December 2013, 10 cases of chikungunya virus were confirmed on the French side of Saint Martin.

Typhoid fever

Although typhoid fever is caused by a bacterium in the Salmonella group that causes mild diseases like food poisoning, typhoid fever is a life-threatening illness that is common in the developing world. Travelers going to Asia, Africa, and Latin America are especially at risk.

Some people who recover from the fever continue to carry the bacteria. The disease can be acquired by eating food or drinking beverages that have been contaminated by a person with the bacteria, or if contaminated sewage gets into the water used for drinking or washing food.

Symptoms

The incubation period for the bacteria can vary from a week to 3 weeks. Symptoms include a sustained fever as high as 102 F to 104 F, feeling weak, stomach pains, headache, loss of appetite, and, in some cases, a rash.

Prevention and treatment

Travelers visiting parts of the world where typhoid fever exists should get vaccinated against the illness and avoid risky foods and drinks. Since the vaccines are not completely effective, people should take the same care with foods to prevent typhoid fever as they would to prevent TD.

The disease is treated with antibiotics, and people usually improve within 2 to 3 days. Deaths rarely, but can, occur among people who have been treated with antibiotics. Plus, relapse is not uncommon.

Without treatment, typhoid fever can be fatal. The fever can continue for weeks or months, and 20% of affected people may die from complications.