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Healthy Vacation


By Dan Gordon '85

Published Jul 1, 2013 8:00 AM

You can't wait for your vacation to begin, but what if you get sick while you're away? From vaccines you might need, foods and liquids you shouldn't consume and preparing for severe weather and altitude—not to mention jetlag—UCLA experts offer tips on a happy and healthy getaway.


Illustration by: Blair Kelly.

You've been looking forward to it for months. You've carefully planned a full and vibrant itinerary for your summer vacation, eagerly obsessing over every last detail of the journey. Except one: what to do if you get sick or injured.

"People invest so much money and emotion in their travels, and becoming sick and losing even a couple of days out of a weeklong trip can cost them a relatively large proportion of their vacation," notes Dr. Christopher Tymchuk M.S. '97, Ph.D. '00, an infectious disease specialist and medical director of the UCLA Santa Monica Travel Clinic. Whether you're headed to an exotic locale or a domestic destination, it pays to consider the health risks involved and take steps to reduce the likelihood that the trip will be marred by illness or injury. "Increasingly, people are traveling to remote areas and participating in activities that put them at risk of potential exposure to various illnesses," adds Dr. Soniya Gandhi, a UCLA infectious disease specialist who sees a lot of travel patients in Westwood. "It's important to take the time to think ahead about the precautions that can be taken, because many illnesses can be prevented if you're smart about traveling."

Gandhi and Tymchuk offer these tips to ensure that your summer vacation is memorable—in a good way.

Consume Cautiously

By far the most common illness to befall vacationers abroad is the dreaded travelers' diarrhea. "In many parts of the world the water isn't chlorinated and is unsafe to drink," says Tymchuk. He urges international travelers to buy purified or bottled water, or boil the water for a minute before drinking it, which kills the offending bacteria, viruses or protozoa. Make sure food you eat is thoroughly cooked and stay away from street vendors or restaurants with unhygienic conditions. Avoid raw meat, seafood, or fruits and vegetables unless they are peeled. Applying alcohol-based sanitation gel prior to eating can reduce the contamination risk.

If you are one of the millions unfortunate enough to be stricken, Gandhi says, it's unpleasant but in all likelihood not serious. Stay hydrated and replace the lost electrolytes. It may also be a good idea to bring an over-the-counter antimotility medication to help with the symptoms, and have your physician prescribe a prophylactic antibiotic to be taken in the event that you have a high fever, bloody diarrhea or symptoms that aren't improving.

Don't Bug Me

Malaria spread by mosquitoes is a major risk in many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America. A map on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at malaria/map shows the regions of concern; if you are going there, Gandhi says, see your doctor about a malaria prophylaxis (typically a once-a-day pill, starting at least two days before you enter the danger area), but also take precautions to reduce your exposure. Mosquitoes and ticks can transmit other viruses as well. Wear long, loose clothing and closed shoes, tucking your pants into them. Certain parts of the world call for sleeping with bed nets. And use repellants that contain DEET (at least 30 percent) or picaridin.

Injection Protection

Vaccinations may require two to four weeks to take effect and the immunizations you need depend on where you're going. Fundamental vaccines for travel abroad include those for gastrointestinal illnesses spread by food and water, such as typhoid and hepatitis A, which are quite common in many parts of the world, including developed regions. If you are entering certain tropical and jungle areas in Africa or South America, you might need a yellow fever vaccine; in parts of Asia, you'll want to be protected against Japanese encephalitis. "Most importantly, travelers should make sure they're up to date on their routine immunizations, including measles, mumps, rubella and tetanus, as well as getting a flu shot," says Tymchuk.

Proceed with Caution

Other concerns relate to the activities you engage in during your vacation. Summer travelers whose itinerary includes significant outdoor activity need to protect themselves with sunscreen, hats and clothing and make sure to stay hydrated. Tymchuk also warns against the vacationer's equivalent of the weekend warrior phenomenon. "People may want to engage in physical activities that they wouldn't do at home," he says. Consider the injury risk before strapping on those Rollerblades for the first time or going on a third straight day of hiking when you were wheezing after the first one.

Road Hazards

Don't overlook road safety. That goes for whether you're in the UK or a former British colony where people drive on the left side of the street, or in a developing country where road conditions are dicey, traffic patterns unfamiliar and unconventional modes of public transportation place passengers at greater risk.

What to Bring

Gandhi advises putting together a traveler's first-aid kit that includes an anti-allergy medication, anti-inflammatory drugs such as Motrin, an antimotility agent such as Imodium or Pepto-Bismol, bandages, oral rehydration salts and sunscreen. Make sure to carry an ample supply of any prescription medicines, and don't check them with your baggage. "In many parts of the world, you're not going to have as easy access to the things you take for granted at home," says Gandhi.

Is There a Doctor in the House?

If you do need to see a doctor while you're away, know in advance what your insurance will cover and where you might go for care. Having medical evacuation insurance—covering your transportation to the nearest city where you can obtain sufficient care—may be advisable. If you're going to a developing country where English isn't commonly spoken, identify reputable English-speaking doctors ahead of time, particularly if you have a chronic condition and need special expertise. The U.S. State Department website at can help, as can the U.S. Embassy and Consulate once you are there. "You hope it won't come to that," concludes Gandhi. "But it's always best to be prepared."

Boldly Go For more information on how to stay healthy on vacation, visit the Centers for Disease Control's Travelers' Health section at