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Staying Healthy While You Travel

It’s fun to travel. But being away from our usual eating and sleeping routines can make it more likely for someone to get sick. It takes time to adjust to the food, water, and air in a new environment. And kids can be at risk for travel-related problems like motion sickness, diarrhea, and infections.

Early planning and smart packing can help you keep your family healthy while traveling. Here are some things to keep in mind.

What Should I Do Before Travel Abroad?

For travel abroad, prepare well in advance. For instance, it's important to find out what vaccinations your kids (and even you) might need because:

  • Different countries have different risks and rules that may require specific vaccines. For example, your family will need the yellow fever vaccine if you travel to sub-Saharan Africa or tropical South America, but not to Eastern Europe.
  • Some vaccines are given in more than one dose over a period of days or even weeks.
  • Most vaccines take time to become effective.

Most immunizations should be given at least 1 month before travel. So try to schedule a doctor's visit 4-6 weeks before your trip. Even if you're leaving sooner than that, make an appointment, as kids might still benefit from shots or medicines.

Doctors might recommend that travelers also be vaccinated against:

All kids get the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine at 12–15 months of age. But any who will travel outside the United States before that should get the vaccine as early as 6 months of age.

Also, kids of any age can get malaria. So if you're traveling to a country with a malaria risk, talk to your doctor about antimalarial drugs. The doctor will decide the best preventative medication based on your destination and your child's health status.

Ask your doctor or visit the CDC's website for a list of recommended or required vaccinations. Take your child's immunization records with you if you're traveling internationally. The CDC also has information about travel notices when there are outbreaks of infectious diseases in different parts of the world.

Common Travel Troubles

No matter how far you're traveling, there are some health issues that your family is likely to face, including jet lag, ear discomfort, travel (or motion) sickness, and diarrhea.

Jet Lag

If you fly across time zones, it can take time for your internal body clock to catch up with the local time. For example, if your regular bedtime is 9 p.m. and you travel from New York to California, where the time is 3 hours earlier, you may be ready for bed when it is 6 p.m. in California because you've already been up for the usual amount of time and your body is ready to rest. Chances are you'll probably not go to sleep until the local time is 9 p.m., and then you'll be extra tired because your body has been awake for longer than usual.

Jet lag also can cause an upset stomach and even insomnia. Here are some tips for dealing with jet lag:

  • Try to adjust your family's sleep schedules 2–3 days before you travel.
  • Get plenty of rest before your trip. If possible, sleep on the flight.
  • Dehydration contributes to the side effects of jet lag so make sure everyone drinks plenty of water during the flight. Avoid alcohol, coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages.
  • On a long flight, try to stretch regularly and even walk up and down the aisles when they're clear and it's OK to do so.
  • After arrival, encourage kids to be active outside or in brightly lit areas during daylight hours.
  • Try to follow local time at your destination (for example, try to keep kids awake until their usual bedtime).

Ear Pain

It's common for kids to experience ear discomfort during a plane's takeoff and landing caused by pressure in the middle ear as it tries to keep up with the quickly changing air pressure. Encourage kids to swallow, yawn, or, if they're old enough, chew gum. It may help infants to nurse or suck on a bottle.

You may also want to give your child a pain reliever, such as acetaminophen, 30-60 minutes before takeoff or, if it's a long flight, before landing.

Motion Sickness

Travel (or motion) sickness is caused by a conflict between the eye and ear: The inner ears detect movement, but the eyes — focused within a car or other vehicle — do not. These mixed signals coming into the brain can cause nausea, dizziness, vomiting, paleness, and cold sweats.

Motion sickness often happens on ships and boats, but it also can affect kids when they travel in planes, buses, and cars. To help deal with travel sickness:

  • Before you leave, have kids eat a light meal or snack, as motion sickness seems worse on an empty stomach. Provide foods that are easily digested, such as complex carbohydrates, and avoid fatty foods.
  • Try to avoid eating during short trips. For longer trips, sip drinks and eat light, small meals and snacks.
  • If your child is feeling sick, provide some blander foods, like crackers.
  • Encourage kids to look outside the car, rather than inside. They should focus on still objects — not moving ones (like other cars) — or a distant point.
  • Keep the window open a little to allow fresh air to circulate.
  • Use a headrest to minimize head movement.
  • Make frequent stops, if possible, at places like rest stops and parks. And if your child complains of feeling sick and it's safe to stop, a short walk for some fresh air might help.
  • Ask your doctor about medicines to prevent travel sickness.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea and other stomach problems can be common during travel. Often, they're caused by bacteria or other germs entering the digestive tract, usually from contaminated food or water. Diarrhea is especially a problem for young kids and babies, who can become dehydrated more quickly than adults.

Water in many developing countries isn't treated in the same way as water supplies in developed nations and may contain bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

To ensure the water is safe:

  • Consider drinking only bottled water when traveling.
  • Use only purified water for drinking, making ice cubes, brushing teeth, and mixing infant formula and foods.
  • If you use tap water, boil it first or purify it with an iodine tablet.

Other ways to prevent diarrhea and GI distress:

  • If you're breastfeeding your infant, continue to do so.
  • Remind kids to wash their hands well and often.
  • Keep pacifiers, teething rings, and toys clean.
  • Keep an alcohol-based hand sanitizer handy.
  • Make sure all dairy products are pasteurized.
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables should be cooked or washed well and peeled.
  • Meats and fish should be well cooked and eaten just after preparation.
  • Avoid food from street vendors.

Be Prepared

Pack any medicines and other medical supplies you and your family use regularly. These could be hard to find at your destination. Don't forget inhalers, allergy medicine, and insulin, if needed.

Other items you might want to pack:

  • over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever like acetaminophen
  • a small first-aid kit that includes antiseptic, antibiotic ointment, bandages, and other OTC medications your doctor may recommend
  • sunscreen
  • insect repellent (the most effective ones contain DEET)
  • waterless alcohol-based hand rubs for when soap and clean water aren't available

Before your trip, find out where the closest hospital or medical care is at your destination, particularly if your child has a chronic health condition.

It's also wise to carry a written copy of your child's medical history. Having this available can help health care workers make decisions about care, if needed. And you won't have to worry about forgetting important information at a time when you're likely to be upset.

A medical history should include:

  • your name, your child's name, your address and home phone number
  • your child's blood type
  • immunization records
  • your doctor's name, address, and office and emergency phone numbers
  • the name, address, and phone number of your health insurance carrier, including your policy number
  • a list of any ongoing health problems, such as diabetes or asthma
  • a list of any medicines your child takes and your pharmacy's name and phone number
  • a list of allergies to medications, food, insects, and animals
  • a prescription for glasses or contact lenses
  • the name, address, and phone number of a relative other than you

And Don't Forget . . .

While you're away, it's important to take the same health and safety precautions as you do at home:

  • Protect yourselves from the spread of germs. Wash your hands well and often. Wash for at least 20 seconds with soap and water or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Teach your kids to do the same. Avoid contact with people who are sick, and try to stay at least 3 feet (1 meter) away from anyone who is coughing or sneezing. Try not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth. Use wipes to clean surfaces and objects that people touch a lot.
  • Sun smarts. Watch kids' sun exposure. UV light is especially intense near the equator, at high altitudes, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and where light is reflected off water or snow. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 15 every 2 hours, especially after sweating and water exposure. Bring a hat and sunglasses to keep the sun off of your child's face. And, consider sun-protective clothing.
  • Water safety. It's vital to watch kids at all times around any body of water. Because water safety devices — such as life jackets and goggles — may not be available at your destination, consider bringing these from home if you're planning to spend time on or near water.
  • Buckle up. If you'll rent a car, you might want to bring your child's car seat with you, as well-maintained and approved seats might not be available abroad. Kids weighing less than 40 pounds should be properly restrained in a car seat. Infants and toddlers should ride rear-facing until they reach the maximum weight and height limits recommended by the seat's manufacturer. Kids who have outgrown their forward-facing car seat (usually when they're between 4 and about 8 years old, but weight and height limits vary) should use a belt-positioning booster seat.

This planning can help make sure that when the time comes, all you'll have left to do is relax and enjoy your vacation!

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: January 2021