I hope that I’m not about to jinx this by writing about it, however in the 8 months that we’ve been travelling so far, we (and when I say we, I mean me) have only properly gotten ill once. Sure it was a quite spectacular 48 hour episode of sickness during which I projectile vomited all over a hostel reception, but I think it’s pretty good going really considering that we have travelled through ten different countries so far. And not always in the most sanitary conditions I might add due to our limited budget. There was that time that someone pissed on J’s foot on a coach in Bolivia and the revolting public toilets in China that spring to mind. But we survived! And so I feel compelled to give you our top tips for avoiding getting ill whilst travelling.
Make sure you get all the relevant injections for the destinations you are going to before you set off. For travelling through South America and Asia we had Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A&B, Tetanus & Typhoid jabs. We did consider Japanese Encephalitis too but there wasn’t much of a risk for the areas we were planning to go to and Rabies but it doesn’t actually completely immunise you – just buys you a little more time until you get to a hospital. Depending on your GP surgery some are free, usually Tetanus and Hepatitis. The others you will need to pay for and likely get done at a specialist clinic. Be forewarned they are expensive so be sure to factor this into your savings/budget.
Check NHS fit to travel website for destination specific travel advice, including up to date malaria risk zones so you know when to take malaria tablets. These can be obtained easily enough from your GP or even ASDA pharmacies in the UK but are also readily available on the road (at a much cheaper price too). Probably because they are educated to a high standard, we have found that most pharmacists speak perfect English. And I’ve been in more than my fair share of them in most countries buying travel sickness pills.
Food & Drink
Don’t drink tap water unless it’s definitely safe to do so. The only place we’ve been so far on our travels where this has been the case is Japan. Be careful with ice too, although most places in SE Asia buy them from places that mass produce them under hygienic conditions. Make sure you drink enough water too, it’s easy to underestimate how much your body needs in hot climates when you're busy and excited running around new places. But dehydration will creep up on you so make sure you always have a bottle of water with you. On the same note, try and keep the booze under control. When in cheap countries and a litre of beer costs under a £1 it can be all too tempting to have more than a cheeky few most days. But without giving your body a break, it will interfere with your sleep and you are more likely to pick up bugs if your body is tired. Not to mention wasted time on hangovers.
Only eat in places that are busy and keep an eye on how your food is prepared. We eat at street food stalls a lot (because it’s delicious & cheap) so this isn’t difficult. People can be squeamish about eating street food but if you think about it why would you trust what’s going on behind a closed door in a kitchen over seeing someone actually handle your food in front of you. Eating cheaply in some countries where vegetables are expensive can take its toll if you are not getting enough vitamins. If we need a boost we just buy some fruit from a local market but you can also consider taking a multi-vitamin.
Prevention is Better Than Cure
It’s no secret that keeping active increases your overall wellbeing and strengthens your immune system. So find something you enjoy doing, for us it’s walking (almost everywhere), hiking & yoga. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep too. Sleeping in budget accommodation either in dorms with others or hotel rooms overlooking busy roads can have a detrimental effect on your sleep patterns and in all the excitement you may not realise until you are worn down and feeling under the weather. We are always armed with our earplugs and eye masks.
This is not an obvious one but be mindful when swimming as the water may be polluted. Even the most unlikely places can be full of bacteria, for example the sea on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro contains ridiculously high levels of bacteria. If that’s the case, try not to ingest it by accident or open your eyes underwater. Also check so far as you can about how safe freshwater is to swim in, J got a worm under his skin on his scalp a few years ago in Brazil that was thankfully easily treated with antibiotics.
Wash your hands regularly and I mean properly wash them, not just a quick rinse under the tap. Make sure you always carry anti-bacterial gel with you so that if there isn’t any soap you can lather some of that on. Planes and coaches are well known germ carriers and a top tip from us is to gargle with mouthwash regularly whilst en route to rinse out any germs from your airways. Sanitise your phone too, you’re always handling this whether it be to take a photo, send a social media update or record costs and it will contain trillions of germs.
Wear a high enough factor suncream for your skin type, being mixed race J has to wear less than me with my pale freckled complexion but we both tend to just wear SPF 50 so we have to carry less. A common side effect of Malaria tablets is to make your skin more sensitive to the sun too. Getting sun burnt and risking suffering from sun stroke is not worth missing out on travel experiences.
Never neglect putting your bug spray on too. It’s not just mosquito bites, if you are doing any trekking you need to be sure to avoid ticks and leeches too as they also carry serious diseases such as Lyme disease. As far as mosquitos go you should be wary of Dengue and Zika viruses as well as Malaria. All are pretty damn dangerous. The best way to minimise the risk is by not getting bitten. If there are a lot of mosquitos, we will cover up in loose clothing as well.
Of course whether you are at home or travelling, getting ill now and again is just part of everyday life but being on the road in foreign places will expose you to a whole new range of bugs and diseases so it’s important to take more precautions. After all you don’t want to be spending your time puking your guts up in a toilet when you could be out there seeing the world.