7 Ways to Avoid the Most Common Travel Illnesses

Hiker drinking from river
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When you’re venturing to an epic travel destination, the one souvenir you don’t want to bring home is a disease.

That’s easier said than done when you’re unsure of how your food’s being prepared or you’re battling your way through a jungle landscape.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to protect yourself from food and water poisoning, as well as altitude sickness when traveling.

Here, Marjorie A. Brown, R.N., travel health nurse at the Orlando Health Travel Clinic, highlights everything you need to know.

1. Stick to hot foods

“Depending on where you visit, the food may not be as well-regulated as it is in the U.S.,” Brown says. Because of this, you want to err on the side of caution and avoid uncooked foods. “Don’t eat raw fruits, vegetables, and be wary of raw or undercooked meats and eggs,” she says. “You also should avoid unpasteurized milk and dairy products, such as soft cheeses and yogurt.”

Of course, hot foods can harbor issues, too. “Don’t eat warm food or food that’s been cooked and left unrefrigerated for several hours—like items you might find at a buffet,” Brown advises. 

“The CDC recommends sticking to the slogan ‘boil it, peel it, or forget it,’ which basically means stick to food that’s prepared steaming hot, eat fruit you can peel yourself (like a banana or orange)—or don’t eat it at all,” Brown says. 

The lettuce on your sandwich can make all the difference between conquering the trip of your dreams, and ending up with a serious case of food poisoning.

2. Avoid food from street vendors

Oh, the allure of eating like a local—strolling along while you gnaw on meat on a stick. But here’s the thing: Most locals don’t eat from street vendors (or they know where the good ones are, and stiff-arm the rest).

“Though you may want to experience cuisine native to the culture you’re visiting, you should avoid food from street vendors,” Brown says. “In some countries, street vendors don’t have the proper permits and may not undergo food inspections.”

Remember that when you’re being offered “freshly sliced” mango in a questionable zip-lock baggie. (That goes for major cities in the States, too…)

“Sometimes people may prepare food in unclean conditions or may not properly store it to prevent contamination,” Brown explains. “Stick to restaurants where you can be certain the food is prepared with food safety in mind.” Grab a travel guide, query your hotel/Airbnb/hostel, or ask locals for their top-rated picks on an authentic restaurant.

3. Be careful about what you drink

“In many developing countries, the local water supply isn’t safe for consumption,” Brown says. “While tap water is generally considered safe in the U.S., it can be a source of harmful bacteria and parasites that can cause traveler’s diarrhea in other parts of the world.” So unless you consider staring at your hotel’s bathroom door “sight seeing,” you should avoid tap water, drinks with ice (don’t forget about cocktails and frozen drinks), and brush your teeth with bottled water.

“Swallowing even a small amount of contaminated water can cause illnesses such as hepatitis, typhoid fever, and cholera—so stick to bottled water for your toothbrush,” Brown says. You should be wary of coffee and tea, too. Unless you’re absolutely sure it was made with water that came to a boil, skip it.

This also means you want your source of bottled water to be reliable. “Sometimes locals will fill up water bottles with tap water, seal them with super glue, then sell them as new to make money,” Brown says.

Any beverage that’s sealed and/or carbonated is considered safe. “Just be sure to wipe off the top of the can or bottle since it could have been stored in ice that’s unsafe,” she advises. 

4. Bring your own straws

“Many travelers choose to bring their own supply of straws so they don’t put their mouths on a container,” Brown says. You can also carry an empty water bottle, which you can refill with any bottled beverage.

Taking these extra measures is the best way to boost your safety.

5. Keep insects at bay

Light boots, hiking clothes, and camping gear aren’t the only essentials you need for an outdoor excursion. If you’re traveling to any area prone to disease-toting bugs, a good insect repellent is a must-have.

“Mosquitos, ticks, and some flies can spread diseases that may not be treatable with a vaccine or medication,” Brown says. “And since prevention is always the best medicine, avoid getting sick in the first place by using an insect repellent that’s 30-40% DEET [a chemical that effectively keeps insects at bay].”

Picaridin is another powerful insect repellent, as are products that contain oil of lemon eucalyptus.

“In addition, there’s an insect repellent used specifically to treat clothing and inanimate objects, such as shoes, hats etc.,” Brown says. “It’s called Permethrin, and it’s made from chrysanthemum flowers.” This is the type of repellent used to pre-treat hiking, camping, and fly-fishing gear. Typically, it lasts up to three washes.

Using both the skin insect repellent (remember, insects can bite any unprotected skin area) and the pre-treated clothing spray will give you very good protection against biting insects. You should also be vaccinated, depending upon where you’re traveling.

Here are some other ways to prevent bug bites:

  1. Wear long-sleeve, light-color clothing for added protection
  2. Avoid wearing bright colors that attract certain insects
  3. Wear fragrance-free or unscented fragrances, deodorants, and hair gels
  4. Use mosquito netting over your bed and stay in screened or air-conditioned rooms
  5. Never sleep exposed outdoors, like in a hammock

6. Practice good hygiene

“Wash your hands thoroughly or use an alcohol gel with at least 60% minimum alcohol concentration before you eat or place your hands near your mouth,” Brown says. This is especially crucial if you’re backpacking and don’t have access to soap and water…or a bathroom. In short: bring hand sanitizer.

Also, travel with a first-aid kit. Bandage any new cuts and avoid exposure in the shower, as bacteria can enter your bloodstream.


7. Avoid altitude illness

There are varying opinions on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to avoiding and managing altitude sickness.

Brown recommends travelers connect with a travel-medicine provider to obtain prescription medication to help prevent altitude sickness (the most common is Diamox).

“I see patients all the time traveling to high-destination points around the world such as Mt. Kilimanjaro [in Tanzania], Machu Picchu [in Peru], Lhasa [in Tibet], and Kathmandu [in Nepal],” she says.

But some tour guides native to these areas suggest that lifestyle preventative measures, like drinking loads of water, might actually be more beneficial. Staying hydrated is half the battle. Listen to your body, give yourself some time to adjust, and heed the advice of any tour guides you’re with.


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