How to Avoid Getting Sick When You Travel Overseas

It is somewhat timely to post this article as I have been suffering from a really bad case of the flu which was diagnosed as pneumonia while I was in Kaikoura in the South Island of New Zealand last week. I am slowly on the mend and for the first time in ten days I think I am actually starting to feel a bit better (touch wood!). Being unwell and unable to photograph in such a beautiful part of the world was far from ideal. However, it got me thinking about what I generally do to avoid getting sick when I travel. I need to put a disclaimer on this article at this point in that I am not a Doctor and I am not offering medical advice in any shape or form. The intention of this article and post is to provide you with some general hygiene based practices you can implement to help you avoid getting sick when you are travelling. You should always consult with your Doctor regarding any illness. These are precautions I personally take and they generally work for me. Consult with your Doctor and remember I am not offering you any medical advice.

With that disclaimer out of the way these are my personal Top Ten precautions for avoiding illness when I travel. Many of these might seem like simple common sense but its good to revisit them from time to time to ensure you are implementing best practice to avoid illness.

  • Be Prepared: I try and be prepared for illness and travel with suitable medicines based on my Doctor’s advice. I visit my Doctor before I leave and get a prescription for a generic AntiBiotic medicine. Something that I can take to help my body battle an infection should I be unlucky enough to fall ill. I also travel with a range of medications including pain killers and nausea medicines. Consult with your Doctor for their recommendations on suitable medications that you can use when you are travelling.
  • Prevention: I always visit my Doctor before I leave and find out what he recommends in the way of immunisations for the countries I plan to visit. Prevention is always better than cure when it comes to illness and many of the really nasty ailments can be immunised against (such as Typhoid, Yellow Fever etc.). Immunisations are like crash helmets for your entire body  – You don’t want to be without them.
  • Hygiene: I always pack a small bottle of Hand Sanitiser and use it religiously. When travelling in areas which have questionable hygiene I use the sanitiser to wipe down cutlery, chopsticks, bowls and cups. I wash my hands regularly and always before I sit down to a meal. If I am travelling on a cruise ship I am using hand sanitiser many times per day. As a general rule I try and apply sanitiser very time I touch a ships public railing. Ships railings are the equivalent of a bacteria factory operating at maximum efficiency. I personally prefer to bounce off the ships walls with my arms and elbows than to touch ship railings.
  • Catching Bugs: The default reaction for most people stepping onto an escalator or travellator at an airport is to immediately put their hand on the hand rail. My advice is that unless you specifically require the use of the rail for balance avoid placing your hand on the rail. These hand rails are one of the most common ways germs are transmitted from person to person. All you need to do is touch a hand rail then touch your face and you can pick up a bug or virus. The same applies to everything from buttons in lifts to door handles and airport luggage carts.

  • Water: Only drink bottled water and do not brush your teeth with tap water. The only places in the world I drink tap water are Australia (where I live), New Zealand and Iceland. Outside of those three countries I only drink and brush my teeth with bottled water. If you are used to ordering your drinks with ice be sure to ask where the water came from – bottled or tap. Drink plenty of water. It is easy to become dehydrated when you are travelling and if you are dehydrated it is hard for your body to fight off illness. Personally, I find it hard to drink a lot of water so I usually opt for either bottled soda or mineral water.
  • Vitamins: I take Vitamin C daily when I am travelling as a preventative medicine – usually 1000 milligrams per day. If I start to feel a sniffle coming on I increase my daily dose to 3000 milligrams for a short period. Vitamin C is a proven source of energy for your body to help fight sickness. If the food is questionable in the country I am travelling I will also supplement with a daily general purpose multi-vitamin.
  • Wash: Wash your hands regularly. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people I see walking out of a public bathroom without washing their hands. Wash with hot water and soap – a quick rinse doesn’t cut it and I prefer the surgical scrub approach. Disposable paper towel is my preferred hand drying method as I can usually keep a piece in my hand to open the bathroom door before tossing it in the bin. Remember, any door handles (particularly bathrooms) are potential infection points so avoid them at all times if possible.
  • Touch: This is a hard one to remember, but it is often the key to avoiding illness. Try not to touch your face with your hands when you are travelling. Many bugs and germs are picked up first on the hands and then transmitted to the face where actual infection takes place. Bacteria is carried through moisture, so when people are sneezing and coughing, and then touching things, they are leaving their germs on them. If you are to accidentally come into contact with these germs, you don’t want them getting to your mouth or nose. Be especially careful in restrooms and public spaces.
  • Food: Eat healthy meals and avoid suspect food. As tempting as it might be to try the local delicacy that has been hanging in the street market under the blazing sun all day it probably isn’t a clever thing to do and it certainly isnt worth risking a bad case of food poisoning over. I try and give my body the best food I can when I am travelling within the confines of my food and taste preferences. Take away junk food provides little in the way of nutrition, vitamins and minerals and does not provide the body with the ideal fuel for fitting infection. There is often a temptation when travelling to try new and exotic foods. I exercise common sense and caution whenever I have the option to try something new. Earlier this year I was travelling through an extremely remote part of China near the Russian and Khazakstan borders and my food choices were extremely limited. I chose what I considered to be the safest option in many places but still ended up with some pretty nasty food poisoning. In these remote parts of the world it is often worth bringing food and snacks from home or from a known location.
  • Rest: Get plenty of sleep and rest. Your body will be much more successful at fighting off illness if you are rested. Colds and flues are much more likely to take hold if you are run down and tired. It can be hard to find ample rest time during photographic travels but it is critical to give the body time to recover every few days. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an afternoon nap if the light is poor or its raining outside. Downtime is as important as shooting time. A rested body and mind is also far more creative than a tired one. I confess that of all the things on my list for avoiding illness this is the one I fail at most frequently.

What to do if you get sick anyway?

Inevitably, if you travel as much as I do at some point you are going to get sick when you are travelling – it happens to all of us. If you do get sick you should consult with a local doctor as soon as practical and heed their advice on recommended medication. It becomes even more important to rest to allow the body time to recover so avoid long hours of field work. You may well have travelled half way around the world to an exotic destination to make photographs but if you feverish and sick staying out to catch good light isn’t going to help you get better. You just need good old fashioned bed rest – for which there is no substitute. It is also likely any travelling companions you may have will want to put some distance between themselves and you. Give them space. You don’t want to make other people sick and ruin their experience.  Exercising voluntary quarantine is a very good idea for everyone you are travelling with.

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