Getting ill can turn holiday heaven into holiday hell. Prevention is better than cure, so make sure you take precautions in advance. Once you're there, avoid midday sun and too much alcohol and keep your fluid intake up in hot climates. Then enjoy!
Sun is hottest between 11 am and 3 pm - and don't forget reflected sun can burn you even in the shade. On long-haul flights, get up and walk around regularly, avoid alcohol and keep your non-alcoholic fluid intake up.
These days many of us jet off on long-distance holidays, forgetting that there are some nasty infectious diseases outside the Western world. If you're going anywhere outside Western Europe, Australia or the USA, make an appointment with your practice nurse at least eight weeks before you travel. She can advise you on any travel immunisations you need. You may also need anti-malarial tablets which you start taking before you leave and continue for one to four weeks after you return - your nurse can advise on the best type and length of course. Fitfortravel.nhs.uk has full details of all immunisations and anti-malarials.
All the recent publicity about Zika virus is more than just hot air - the World Health Organization has said that 'there is scientific consensus that Zika virus is a cause of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome.' On 13th April, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also confirmed that the Zika virus causes severe birth defects, including microcephaly.
You might think none of this applies to you if you're not pregnant and travelling to Brazil. But Zika is spreading and there's a small chance of the infection being passed on by sexual contact, rather than from mosquito bites. The CDC guidance recommends that couples which include a man who has travelled to a high-risk area should use condoms for at least eight weeks after returning if the man does not have symptoms of Zika infection, or at least six months if he does have symptoms. Women who might have been exposed to Zika should wait at least eight weeks before trying to get pregnant.
Clearly, prevention is better than cure where Zika, like so many medical conditions, is concerned. If you are travelling to a Zika area, take full precautions to avoid being bitten, including during the day (unlike malaria-carrying mosquitoes, the Zika-carrying mosquito is wide awake and ready for a meal all day). Use insect repellents containing at least 50% DEET, cover arms and legs and sleep under a mosquito net if you have one.
Insect bites and stings are always miserable but if you're in an area affected by malaria, avoiding them is even more important (even if you're taking tablets). Wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers in the evenings, when mosquitoes are most active; use insect repellent even in areas covered by thin clothing; and spray insect repellents (ask your pharmacist) in your bedroom.
As far as medicines are concerned, it pays to check well in advance if you have enough to last for your whole holiday and a week or two after you return. If not, contact your pharmacist or practice for a repeat prescription. Take all your tablets with you in your hand luggage in case your case gets lost by the airline - you can buy new clothes while you're away, but getting a supply of medicine in a foreign country can be a real challenge! Some medicines, like insulin, must be kept in hand luggage as the low temperatures in the hold can damage them. You'll need a letter from your doctor to say you can take insulin and your syringes on to the plane - you should present this at security.
Likewise, you may need a letter saying you're fit to fly if you're pregnant - airlines differ, but most won't let you to fly if you're over 36 weeks pregnant, or long haul over 32 weeks. Check with your airline and be prepared to pay for doctors' letters.
Most countries will have pharmacies where you can buy remedies for travel maladies, but explaining your symptoms in a foreign language can lead to embarrassing misunderstandings! So if you can, take your own holiday first aid kit. Along with simple plasters (including blister plasters), consider these options, all available from your pharmacist without prescription:
- Hyoscine tablets for travel sickness
- Antihistamine tablets for insect bites and stings
- Diarrhoea tablets containing loperamide (two capsules straightaway, then one every time you have an episode, up to six capsules a day)
- Tablets for nausea and vomiting caused by tummy bugs (I recommend one called Buccastem®, which you dissolve by putting it high up in your gums so you don't have to swallow it)
- Indigestion relief tablets
- Insect repellent spray, especially if you're going to an area affected by malaria.
If the worst does happen, it's crucial to have travel insurance to cover the cost of treatment abroad. An EHIC card entitles you to the same treatment as a native in any country within the European Economic Area, but that doesn't mean it will be free. It also doesn't cover everything, so take out travel insurance as well. Apply at Ehic.org.uk or phone 0300 3301350 - beware other websites offering the card as they may charge and it should be free! You need to renew your card every five years. If you do get ill abroad, your holiday company or hotel should be able to direct you to emergency care. Make sure you have your EHIC card and insurance details with you!
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.