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Stay Healthy When You Travel

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Content last updated on:
February 26, 2014

The Basics

Before you travel outside the United States, plan ahead to stay healthy and safe on your trip.

Answer these questions as you plan your trip:

  • Do I need any shots (vaccines) or medicines to prevent diseases?
  • Will the food and water be safe?
  • Will I be able to get the medicines I need during my trip?
  • What happens if I get sick while I’m traveling?
  • Am I at risk for health problems during travel?

Do I need any shots or medicines to prevent diseases?
Different diseases are common in different parts of the world. Getting certain shots (vaccines) and medicines before traveling can protect you from local diseases. For example: 

  • Shots can protect you from diseases like hepatitis A. You can get hepatitis A from contaminated (unsafe) food or water. It’s common in many countries, including those in Central and South America.
  • Medicines can protect you from diseases like malaria. Malaria (“muh-LAIR-ee-yah”) is a disease spread by mosquitoes in some parts of the world, like Africa and Asia.

To stay healthy and safe on your trip, do your homework on the place you’ll be visiting:

Will the food and water be safe?
In some countries, the tap water isn’t safe to drink – especially for people who aren’t used to it. Even if the tap water doesn’t affect the people who live there, it could have germs that could make you sick.

In places where the tap water isn’t safe to drink, you need to be careful about what you eat, too. Some foods, like fresh vegetables and fruits, may not be safe to eat because they are washed or cooked with unsafe water.

Get more information about food and water safety for travelers.

Will I be able to get the medicines I need?
It can be difficult to get medicines when you are traveling. It’s always a good idea to pack all the medicine you might need.

  • Make a list of the medicines you take or might need when you are traveling. Include prescription and over-the-counter medicines.
  • Pack enough for the whole trip plus some extra, in case you are away longer than you plan to be.
  • Keep medicines in your carry-on bag in case the luggage you check gets lost.

Get more tips on what to pack to help you stay healthy.

What happens if I get sick while I’m traveling?
It can be scary if you need medical help when you are far from home – especially if you don’t speak the local language. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you are prepared.

Before you leave, make a list of the places you could go for help if you get sick. For example, the United States has offices – called embassies and consulates – in many parts of the world. Employees at U.S. embassies and consulates can help U.S. citizens in emergencies.

Look up the contact information for the U.S. embassy or consulate where you will be traveling.

Am I at risk for health problems during travel?
Some people are more likely to have health problems when traveling outside the United States. Visit your doctor before planning a trip to another country, especially if you:

Depending on your situation, the doctor may recommend that you not travel right now.

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Take these steps to stay healthy when you are traveling outside the United States.

Find out about local health problems and other risks.
Before you travel to another part of the world, make sure you know about any issues that could affect your health or safety. Check for information about:

  • Common diseases (like malaria or hepatitis)
  • Disease outbreaks (like the flu)
  • Food and water safety issues and updates
  • Warnings about natural disasters
  • Security concerns (like political unrest or other violence)
  • How to get medical care

Use this tool to find health and safety information for specific countries.

See a doctor before your trip.
Make an appointment to see a doctor at least 4 to 6 weeks before you plan to leave. Say where you are going and what you’ll be doing there.

Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • Am I healthy enough to travel?
  • Am I up to date on my shots?
  • Do I need any other shots to prevent diseases?
  • Do I need to take any special medicines with me in case I get sick?

Take extra steps if you have a health condition.
Ask the doctor for a signed letter that:

  • Describes your health condition
  • Includes any information that could be helpful if you need treatment while you are away
  • Lists any prescription medicines you take, their generic names, and the dose (how much you take)

Ask for an extra supply of any medicines you need, in case your trip lasts longer than you expect.

Get more tips to help you prepare for your appointment.

Have a plan in case you get sick.
Before you leave, make a list of resources. Keep this information with you at all times while you are away.

Check out these other tips on what to do if you get sick or hurt on your trip.

Talk to your medical insurance company before you leave.
Find out if your insurance will:

  • Cover you when you are outside of the country
  • Pay for emergencies like a trip to a hospital or a medical evacuation (if you need to be moved to another hospital or treatment center)

If your insurance won’t cover these things, find out about short-term insurance for travelers.

Know how to eat and drink safely while you are away.
Depending on where you are traveling, you may need to drink only bottled water. You also may need to be careful about what you eat. In places with water safety issues, don’t drink or eat the following:

  • Tap water
  • Fountain drinks (like soda from a machine)
  • Ice cubes
  • Food from street vendors
  • Food served at room temperature
  • Certain foods – especially raw shellfish and foods that may be washed in tap water, like fresh fruits and vegetables

Things that are usually safe to eat and drink include:

  • Bottled drinks
  • Hot coffee or tea
  • Food that is cooked and served hot
  • Fruits and vegetables you have washed in clean water or peeled yourself
  • Dairy products that have been pasteurized (heated to kill harmful germs before you buy them)

Find out what you can do to make water safe to drink.

Protect yourself from bug and animal bites.
Both bug and animal bites can put you at risk for diseases, especially in certain countries.

For example, mosquitoes can spread malaria in Africa and Asia. And dogs in Central and South America are more likely to have rabies than dogs in the United States. People can get rabies if an infected dog bites them.

Here are some basic tips:

  • Ask your doctor if there are shots or medicines you can get to help protect you.
  • Use bug repellent on your skin and clothing.
  • Pack clothing that will protect you from mosquitoes and ticks. For example, you will want a hat, long pants, and long-sleeved shirts.
  • Never try to feed, pet, or touch unfamiliar animals.
  • Be aware of animals around you. They may be more likely to attack if you scare or surprise them.

Be an aware traveler.

  • Learn about the local laws and customs (common behaviors) where you’ll be traveling. You can make safer decisions when you know which behaviors are okay and which ones might upset people.
  • Keep your luggage in sight at all times. Also make sure not to take any packages from people you don’t know.
  • Don’t carry large amounts of cash with you. When you take money out to pay for something, try not to let people see what’s in your wallet.
  • Store any valuables and important documents (like your passport) at the hotel. Never carry them with you while you are out.
  • Write down how to say a few key phrases in the local language in case of an emergency, like “I need help” or “I need a doctor.”
  • Find out about ways to stay in contact by phone. In some areas, you may need to buy a local cell phone or use a pre-paid calling card.

Get more tips for staying safe on your trip.

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