The Independent Pharmacy

12 Tips For Avoiding Diseases Like Malaria When Travelling

Scott McDougall
Scott McDougallMPharmDirector & Registered Manager

Reviewed on 3 Oct 2023

Planning a family holiday or jet set adventure? Wherever you go in the world, it pays to plan ahead to ensure that you and your loved ones have a safe and injury-free trip. We’ve put together a list of our top travel health and safety tips, covering everything from food and first aid, to sun safety and malaria prevention.

Treating insect bites and stings

If you’re travelling abroad to a warm country, chances are you will encounter some bugs along the way. While most are harmless (if annoying), there are some serious infectious diseases that can be transmitted via insect bite, including yellow fever, dengue fever, and of course malaria from mosquitos. There are drugs and vaccinations available to prevent these diseases, but even so, it’s a good idea to take precautions against bug bites and stings – as much for your own comfort as anything else.

Avoid being bitten by wearing DEET mosquito repellent (ideally 50% or higher), staying indoors during dawn and dusk, covering up and using a bed net. Air-conditioned accommodation is preferable, if you can get it. Most insect bites are not serious and will heal up in a day or so. You can treat a painful bite or sting by first removing the sting, washing it with soap and water and applying a cold compress. It may be itchy, but try to avoid scratching, as this will only make it worse.

If the pain doesn’t clear up, you might want to consult your doctor. You can also try antihistamines and itch relief cream to help mitigate the ongoing symptoms.

Staying safe in the sun

We’ve all heard it by now: too much time in the sun is bad for your health and increases your risk of skin cancer. Whatever you’ve heard elsewhere, there is no healthy way to get a real tan – and it doesn’t protect your skin from the sun. While we all need a certain amount of sun to replenish our levels of Vitamin D, the key is to find a balance.

A good rule of thumb is to try and stay out of the sun as much as possible between the hours of 11am and 3pm, when the sun’s rays are most intense. Cover up with lightweight layers – especially for children – and apply plentiful suncream at a minimum factor 30 or above.

People tend to use less sun cream than they actually need, so if in doubt, add a little more. You should need around 2 teaspoons for your head, arms and neck, or between 2-3 tablespoons for your entire body. Remember to top up throughout the day – one application will only last for a few hours.

Foreign food and water

It’s common while travelling to pick up a stomach upset from somewhere or another, usually from dodgy food or untreated water. While rarely serious, they can be very unpleasant, especially when you are there to enjoy yourself on holiday. Diarrhoea, stomach pain and vomiting are not the ideal accompaniment to a nice day at the beach.

Here are some tips to prevent a travellers' diarrhoea while you’re away on holiday:

  • Avoid shellfish and dairy products
  • Don’t buy food from street sellers
  • Only eat fruit and veg that have been washed or have a thick skin
  • Buy bottled water rather than drinking from the tap
  • Avoid ice in your drinks
  • Wash your hands regularly

Getting vaccinated

It’s possible to pick up some very serious diseases while travelling abroad if you don’t take the necessary precautions. That’s where vaccinations come in. Travel vaccinations against diseases like typhoid and hepatitis are a must if you are visiting high-risk countries – speak to your GP well in advance to find out which vaccinations you need.

Factors such as your medical history, age, travel location, type of travel (e.g. backpacking) and the length of your stay will determine which vaccinations are recommended for you. Even if you’ve left it late, there are still some that you will be able to have at short notice. Find out as soon as you can – it’s not worth risking something life-threatening.

Overcoming jet lag

Jet lag is the inevitable companion of the long-haul traveller, particularly when travelling from west to east, as a shorter day is harder to adapt to. Jet lag cannot be avoided, but its effects can be reduced with melatonin tablets. In addition, it’s helpful to:

  • Limit alcohol and caffeine
  • Change your sleep routine beforehand
  • Get plenty of sleep before you fly
  • Take naps throughout the flight
  • Get up regularly to walk around
  • Avoid heavy meals

If you’re taking a short trip, consider staying on ‘home time’ to minimise the impact of jet lag.

Malaria prevention

Malaria is a very serious illness that infects the blood with a parasite called Plasmodium. It is transmitted by mosquitos and is most prevalent in Africa, South Asia and parts of Central and South America. Early symptoms of the disease include fever, muscle pain, headaches, diarrhoea and coughing. Anti-malarial tablets and other avoidance techniques such as bed nets and DEET-based repellent are the best ways to avoid contracting malaria while travelling.

There are various different anti-malarial tablets available, with side effects sometimes including headaches, nausea, stomach pain and diarrhoea. Malarone is thought to be one of the best options with the fewest side effects available, however, you should always check the recommended treatment for the area you are visiting as this can vary. There are now cheaper equivalents to Malarone that allow travellers to save money whilst still getting the same trusted protection from malaria - generic atovaquone/proguanil tablets and OTC Maloff Protect.

Avoiding DVT on flights

Deep Vein Thrombosis can be brought on by long-haul flights and is most likely to occur in people who are: obese, pregnant, undergoing hormone replacement therapy or suffering from cancer/heart disease. One of the best ways to avoid getting DVT from a long-haul flight is to wear compression stockings, which help to prevent swelling. Make sure you buy stockings that are the correct fit, otherwise they may not be effective.

In addition to compression stockings, those at risk may also feel more comfortable wearing loose clothing and would benefit from anti-DVT exercises and regular walks while flying. Here are Virgin’s tips for exercises that can be done from your seat. It’s also best to avoid alcohol and sleeping pills if you are on a flight of 4 hours or more.

Getting travel insurance

Regardless of whether you’re going mountain trekking or taking a short city break, it’s always worth having the correct travel insurance. You hope you’ll never need it, but if you do, you’ll be glad you thought ahead. Health problems abroad are stressful enough, without the added pressure of hospital fees.

Ensure that the travel insurance you choose is location-specific, will cover you for the entirety of your stay and includes any one-off ‘high-risk’ activities you’re planning, such as horse riding or water skiing. If you’re travelling in Europe, get yourself a European Health Insurance Card and this will entitle you to free (or reduced cost) medical care. However, it’s still worth investing in travel insurance either way.

Beach safety awareness

Lifeguards are called to respond to thousands of beach incidents every year, and that’s just in the UK. People underestimate the strength of the tide to draw you unexpectedly far out to sea, with rip currents causing most beach-related incidents and deaths.

Of course, we all want to be able to enjoy going to the beach, so here are some tips to increase your safety while you’re out on the sea and sand:

  • Visit beaches that have lifeguards
  • Follow signposted swim advice
  • Swim with others – don’t go alone
  • Supervise children closely
  • Don’t swim after drinking alcohol
  • Don’t use inflatables when it’s windy or the sea is rough
  • Know your beach flags

Pack your first aid kit

A good first aid kit is a real lifesaver. No, really. Particularly if you’re travelling to remote areas, a well-stocked first aid kit should be high on your luggage list. You never know when it might come in handy.

Your travel first aid should contain:

  • Anti-diarrhoea medication
  • Antihistamines
  • Anti-malaria medication (if needed)
  • Antiseptic
  • Bandages & bandage tape
  • Burn cream
  • Dressings
  • Insect bite treatment
  • Insect repellent
  • Mosquito net
  • Painkillers
  • Plasters
  • Rehydration sachets
  • Scissors
  • Thermometer
  • Tweezers
  • Water disinfectant
  • Wound-cleaning gauze

Don’t forget to include any regular medications for existing conditions, with backup in case one packet should get lost.

Leave animals alone

Even animal lovers can contract rabies. Especially animal lovers, if they try to stroke a stray dog and get an aggressive response. The best advice for when you’re travelling is to leave animals alone, so you don’t get bitten or scratched. If you do, you should seek help immediately.

Rabies is a very serious viral infection that is contracted by being bitten or scratched by an animal such as a dog, cat, fox, bat, raccoon or mongoose. Once bitten, don’t wait to find out. Rabies is fatal once symptoms develop, so you need to get treated right away. Symptoms include high temperature, fear of water, sensitivity to light and draughts, confusion and aggressive behaviour.

There is an injection available to increase the amount of time you have to get to a hospital, should you get bitten. Speak to your GP if you are concerned about the risk of being bitten while travelling.

Dealing with diarrhoea

Mild traveller’s diarrhoea is very common while travelling, and it can be hard to avoid. Mostly it occurs early on and shouldn’t last more than a day or so. You should seek medical attention if you notice blood or mucus stains, have a high fever or experience severe stomach pain.

The key thing with traveller’s diarrhoea is making sure you rehydrate. Diluted fruit juice and oral rehydration sachets are good things to keep handy in your first week of travelling – but make sure the water is clean. If it doesn’t clear up, antidiarrhoeal tablets such as Imodium can be taken but should be used sparingly. Some bouts of travellers’ diarrhoea also require a short course of antibiotics to help clear them up quickly.

Got questions about health and travel? Get in touch with us today via phone, email or live chat and have your questions answered by a qualified health professional. When it comes to your health and safety abroad, it pays to be prepared.

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