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The One Travel Health Concern You Should Ignore

by Meg · 22 comments

Back in 2003, my sister came down with a horrible case of amebic dysentery and salmonella poisoning while she was studying abroad in Italy… Long story short, she had to be evacuated back to the states and spent weeks in the hospital recovering.

As you can imagine, my mom was incredibly paranoid about my health when I told her that Tony and I would be traveling the world for a year… Can’t say I blame her.

But it wasn’t just her that had this concern.  Other family members, friends, and colleagues kept on commenting about how sick I would get in some places.

Street Food Kuala Lampur

Here were some common words of wisdom I heard both before my trip and during my trip:

“Get prepared to sh*t your brains out if you travel to India.”

“I got Dengue Fever in Asia and almost died.”

“Wash your hands on overnight bus rides in South America or you’ll get pink-eye!”

And my personal favorite:

“You’re going to die.”

… Really?

After all this “positive” reinforcement, I too became a little paranoid about my health abroad.  However, I am 10 months into my trip now and still healthy as an ox… besides that giant tapeworm swimming around in my brain.

Kidding on that last part.

Besides my brief debacle with E. Coli in Peru and getting a mild sore throat in Thailand after back-to-back days of hardcore wine drinking (the verdict is still out on whether or not that was actually just a hangover), I haven’t really gotten sick at all on the road…

Getting sick abroad

My meds from getting sick in Peru!

… Well, I just jinxed that. Watch me now come down with Polio.

If I were back in the states, I would have already been sick about 4 times in the past 10 months with the common cold or the flu… Even AFTER I got my annual flu shot.

So, aside from people’s assumptions, why was my health at greater risk back in the states than abroad?  And how is it exactly that I am healthier traveling the world? 

I am no doctor, but I took some time assessing what was different in my life on the road than back at home, and here’s what I came up with:

I am no longer stressed from work – I didn’t consider myself to have all that stressful of a job, but every now and then work hours got long, deadlines got tight, and preparing for presentations would put me on edge.  Work-related stress can rock your body out of balance… as well as your immune system.  Being away from work-related stresses for the past 10 months has been incredibly refreshing on my inner yin and yang!

I am no longer subjected to working in tight spaces – Offices, schools, gyms, airplanes, buses, etc. are breeding grounds for germs.  Back home, I worked in an office every day, worked out at my local gym every morning, and commuted on an airplane twice a week.

Healthy Airline Travel

Such the road warrior!

The office was the worst place to be during the flu season.  Especially when I worked with co-workers that had young children… Those folks were practically ground zero.

In South America, Tony and I were frequently in transit bouncing all over the place… But we have since learned to travel slow and stay put for weeks at a time.  As such, we really only have to worry about being in germ-infested planes and buses once a month now.  But more importantly, separating ourselves from our crowded offices has been the biggest help of all.

I am no longer lacking sleep – Back at home, I would often work late hours at night and have to be back into the office early in the morning.  When work got busy, 6 hours of sleep was considered a luxury.

Now, without a job to wake up to every morning, I am averaging 10 glorious hours of sleep each night.  Tony and I may have an overnight bus ride or red-eye flight here and there, but since we are our own bosses now, we can just make up for lost sleep and crash for 12 hours until we are back to our normal selves.

Life is sweet, isn’t it?

I am no longer living in cold weather climates – Now, I’m not sure how much cold weather truly plays a role in one’s physical health.  All I know is that I personally am less prone to getting sick when it is warm out.  And for the past 10 months, Tony and I have been chasing summer… and I have never felt better!

Snow Angels in ColoradoAside from all of these points above, there are some extra precautions you can take to help maintain good health when you’re traveling. 

Here are some of my go-to tricks:

Get lots of sleep – When you’re on vacation or travelling, take advantage of your time away from your job (and boss) and catch up on those zzz’s!

Wash your hands often – You should be doing this anyways, but do it twice as much when you’re on the move and traveling on buses, trains, airplanes, etc.

Maintain healthy eating habits – Once again, you should be doing this anyways, but traveling is no excuse to ruin your healthy eating.  Order vegetables with your meals when you dine out and snack on fruit throughout the day.

Staying healthy on the road

Limit drinking – This is a big one when traveling.  When on vacation, a lot of people go wild and will suck down 10 beers throughout each day.  Ya know what, if you’re just on vacation for a week, then go right ahead and live the Jimmy Buffet lifestyle.  But if you are traveling long-term, try and reduce your consumption to one or two a day… or set aside a day each week to get a little crazy.  Trust me, your immune system will thank you!

When eating out, try and stick with cooked meals and go to a place where you trust (or can see) the kitchen – Getting food poisoning on the road is pretty common amongst travelers.  Many countries do not have strict FDA laws, so restaurants and food stalls do not always handle their food with proper care… And that’s an understatement.

To help avoid getting sick on the road, be sure to stick with cooked meals when eating out.  And if you’re browsing food stands, pick ones that are popular with high turnover.  Also, food stalls are great to eat at, because you can see the food being prepared right in front of you before making the decision to order it.

Street Food in Kuala Lampur Chinatown

For example, In Bolivia, I decided not to eat at this one food stand after I saw a little kid have explosive diarrhea literally two feet from the cooking area… I call that a no brainer.

If you are in places where Dengue and Malaria are an issue, wear repellent and take the proper medicine if necessary – Don’t be a tasty treat for the bugs!  We never had to take malaria pills during our trip, but many places in Southeast Asia are in “Malaria zones” where taking pills might be necessary.

If you’re planning to travel to these hot zones, be sure to get your malaria pills from your doctor or a travel clinic back home prior to travelling.  Asia can sell some sketchy meds over the counter, and you don’t want to be buying these pills off a ladyboy in Bangkok!

In Koh Samui, there was a Dengue Fever outbreak in the neighborhood we were housesitting in.  There are no pills to take for Dengue, but we just made sure to load up on mosquito repellent throughout the day.

Your turn: Do you find yourself getting sick more when you travel or when you are working 9-5 back home?  What are your tips for staying healthy on the road?  Please share below in the Comments section!

About Meg
Exhausted from traveling every week as a Business Management Consultant early in my career, I took a year off in 2012 to travel at my own pace. I am a high-energy girl that loves being active, eating food, drinking wine, and exploring the world with my partner-in-crime (and husband), Tony! I now reside in Portland, Oregon and continue to write about travel, food, wine, and the awesome adventures we have in the Pacific NW!

Megan October 19, 2012 at 5:26 am

i am absolutely more sick when im home as opposed to traveling. i think when youre traveling you are exposed to SO much that your body quickly develops an immunity or resistance to such problems. im sure there is no logic behind it but i feel that way. i worked in a hospital when i was in the military for four years and was NEVER sick, despite being around sick people every single day… i think traveling is slightly the same.

one problem i have is exactly what you mentioned…the drinking. im not a lush, but i like to drink when i travel. usually not excessively, but i have had those days too (dangit beer in norway for being so gosh dang expensive). drinking when traveling always makes me sick later…it ruins my sleep and i make dumb decisions like walking around in poland right before new years with no jacket and freezing…

another reason i think traveling can help someone stay healthy is that they are often at their fittest (activity wise…not food wise). you generally are on your feet more and moving around like a body is supposed to. bodies are not meant to be couped up in a cubicle all day!

Meg October 19, 2012 at 7:03 am

haha true I could just be so over exposed to germs that my body is now a battleship!

Drinking is definitely tough when you’re on the road. Tony has probably one or so drinks a day, but my tolerance is so low and my body definitely goes into shut down mode after too many back to back days of drinking / staying out late. It makes me so mad because Tony is a rock, while my immune system is so weak if I don’t get good sleep and push it too hard on the boozing.

I agree with you on being active on the road and having it help your health. Being sedentary in a cubicle is not how we are programmed. Even though I eat a TON on the road, I always try and walk and explore as much as possible, and I definitely think that helps my health, sanity and weight! Although, Europe was quite deadly for me 😉

Barb October 20, 2012 at 9:32 am

Great article, Meg, on staying healthy while on the road. Here are some tips from our own experiences:

1. Some countries allow you to get penicillin over the counter without a doctor’s order. This was very helpful while we were in Mexico and came down with “Montezuma’s Revenge”.

2. Don’t drink non-bottled water anywhere you are advised not to do so. We learned this lesson the hard way in Mexico.

3. Don’t drink water from a running stream, no matter how clear it looks.

4. Always have access to safe drinking water – e.g. bottled water or close proximity to a store or restaurant. This is especially important while on long hikes or when traveling in hot/humid climates.

5. Know where the good hospitals or medical centers are in the country you visit in the unlikely chance you have any unexpected health issues.

Meg October 21, 2012 at 1:27 am

Great tips Barb!

We actually got a decent supply of penicillin/antibiotics from our doctors back home before we left. While many countries do provide it over the counter, it is sometimes hard to know/trust what you are actually getting. This is especially a concern in Asia, where some places may be giving you a placebo or a completely different drug than the one you need.

Water is always a concern, but most places you visit will tell you right away whether or not you can drink the water, and there are many websites online that pull up water information on each city around the world. Ice is always an issue though at restaurants – That’s how Tony got sick in Bolivia!

Grant October 20, 2012 at 10:44 am

The comment about sketchy meds in Asia made me smile. I picked up a chesty cough in Hanoi and brought back some left over tablets with me. Turned out this particular antibiotic had no licence in Europe or the States (ie it was technically banned). Highly effective mind!!

Meg October 21, 2012 at 1:30 am

Crazy! We have heard so many horror stories about getting meds in Asia. We were paranoid about the possibility of having to get Malaria pills in Asia (since we didn’t bring them on our trip with us)… Those pills alone cause hallucinations, nightmares,etc. I don’t even want to imagine what a “banned” malaria pill would do to you!

Kipp October 20, 2012 at 12:11 pm

90% of the time, it’s 75% mental. or something like that.

I believe if you let yourself give in to getting sick it will be 10 times worse. If you keep a positive attitude and just deny that your throat is starting to itch it can go a long way.

sometimes even if the thermometer reads 102 I’ll just tell myself it’s probably a European thermometer and that’s in kilodegrees so in reality my temperature is probably a lot less.

I’ll go about my day just as I would if I felt great. get a workout in a sweat it out, drink tons of water, and get as much sleep as possible. if all else fails, I usually just get drunk, because you’re going to be sick anyway so why not be hungover too? Then you can’t really tell the difference and it all just blends together.

Meg October 21, 2012 at 1:34 am

Folks, you can trust this wise man. He was Tony’s RA (Residence Assistant) in college. 😉

Phil October 21, 2012 at 10:33 am

Nice post. I appreciate the approach, taking into consideration the positive trade off that comes from a life of travel. And your advice is sensible. Too many travel health articles make unfounded claims or dispense advice without qualifying it. Well done.

Meg October 22, 2012 at 1:02 am

Thanks Phil! When traveling long term its all about being sensible, finding a balance with healthy lifestyle habits, and also learning to enjoy life’s little pleasures in modesty… Of course sh*t can happen, but if you use your head, you often end up being just fine. I just so sad when people are afraid to travel because of health concerns and general paranoia… It’s no way to live!

Kristine October 22, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Oof, during my first trip I got the “Lagos cough”…then the “Barcelona cough” and basically hacked up my lungs for a month. They were both things that were spreading around the hostels; in a way it felt like being back at college because illnesses would spread through the dorms like crazy. Also like college, I was drinking a lot and not getting much sleep, so my immune system was shot–so I can’t really blame it on traveling.

My second time around I was fine the wholeee time and then I got pink eye on the airplane ride home!! It was awful, but it did get me through security reallll fast once I was back–the guy saw me, let out a cry of alarm, and stamped my passport without any questions.

Meg October 23, 2012 at 1:37 am

hahaha you poor thing! The coughing and the pinkeye situations all sound awful (hilarious about the security at the airport though). You’re right about dorm rooms being places to catch things though. I was sick ALL the time in college. Tony and I always stay in private rooms when we travel and often stay in apartment rentals by ourselves, so I really think that helps us stay away from germs.

Thanks for sharing your tales!

Josh | Traveling 9 to 5 October 22, 2012 at 6:59 pm

I agree on the health benefits of travel. We even got our blood tested before we left so we can compare it when we get back! #nuts

While there are still many high-stress situations on the road, I don’t have that all-encompassing daily stress that I had back home. And I also would have had a cold, and terrible sore throat at least twice by now.

Now, I just have to remember where I am sometimes, and not order the lunch special at almost 5 in the afternoon, and then eat it when it comes out in less than 30 seconds, while Care’s food takes 10 minutes to cook. Only $1.50 to be up all night throwing up!

Meg October 23, 2012 at 1:44 am

haha I got my blood tested too! They always recommend after traveling long-term, to get a full blown checkup done with your doctor just to be sure you didn’t pick up anything weird abroad. My sister’s crew coach in college came back from a trip in South America and her doctor found that she had a 20 ft long tapeworm that had to be pulled out of her bum… Now that is #NUTS

haha good tip about not ordering the lunch special at 5pm. Although, we have eaten at Warung Muslim in Gili Air everyday for the past 2 weeks, and their kitchen is disgusting to say the least… But the food is soooo good – And I haven’t gotten sick (yet)!

Stephanie - The Travel Chica October 25, 2012 at 10:42 pm

You can get food poisoning anywhere, so I agree that it doesn’t need to be so worrisome when traveling. Take normal precautions and enjoy!

Meg October 25, 2012 at 11:13 pm

My thoughts exactly! Also all the places we got food poisoning (abroad or in the states) have been in established restaurants… Never from street food – So why not enjoy?!

Harvey -- H-Bomb's Worldwide Karaoke November 4, 2012 at 2:13 pm

10 hours of sleep a night? Wow. I’m never getting enough zzz’s when I’m on the road, because there’s so much I want to do every day and it takes me a while to adjust to jet lag; but I definitely notice that I’m more relaxed. (If I ever had the chance to do an RTW, I probably WOULD have the chance to sleep much better.) I get more cold-type illnesses, but fewer maladies w/ flu-type symptoms, when I’m at home. I think part of it may be that when you go to another country, you’re exposed to pathogens that your body isn’t used to.

Meg November 4, 2012 at 7:20 pm

All great points Harvey – Since we are traveling slow during our RTW trip, we have given ourselves plenty of time in each place to adjust to the jetlag, etc. so that’s why sleep has come easy to us. I do think we are exposed to MUCH more though when we travel!

Michael @ Changes In Longitude November 12, 2012 at 10:17 pm

We were gone for 400 days and neither one of us was sick at all. The second week after I came home I went to the doctor for a check-up and a flu shot. Three days later I had bronchitis which laid me up for a few weeks. Time to hit the road again, my health demands it!

Meg November 12, 2012 at 10:21 pm

You’re back home already?! My my how time flies! That’s awesome – besides the bronchitis of course :-)

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