Sunday, December 7, 2008

Travel Tips: Staying Healthy

Nothing ruins a trip faster than getting sick, and you’re more prone to getting sick when you travel than staying home, depending on where you go.

I never really worried about any health issues when I traveled before I went to India. Europe was (and remains) just like the U.S. where health is concerned. The same restrictions aren’t always in place (the French don’t Pasteurize their camembert cheese, for example), but most developed nations typically don’t pose a threat.
In traveling to India, I went under the impression that I would be sick at some point. That notion was reinforced when I arrived in Mumbai and read an article in one of the newspapers that said a study had proven 98 percent of Mumbai’s water is contaminated.

Call it what you want – Montezuma’s Revenge, Delhi Belly – but it’s not something you need to experience.

Knowing that Kaiser owed me something for the obscene amount of money I have to pay them each month, I went into the travel clinic and stocked up on what I would need before heading to an undeveloped nation.

It turned out that I needed five shots – hepatitis B, tetanus, a polio booster and two others. In addition to the sore upper arm, they gave me a prescription for malaria pills and extra-strength diarrhea medication and a helpful printout showing where malaria is present and what other types of things I should watch out for.

The malaria pills were annoying, needing to be taken daily from the day before I left until four weeks after I returned, but I gather they were much more pleasant than having the disease.

In addition to going to your doctor, there are several things you need to do to stay healthy, wherever you go. I’ll focus mostly on the places where tap water is assumed to be contaminated.

1. Don’t drink the water. Buy bottled water, and make sure the safety seal is intact and that some enterprising local hasn’t just picked up cast-off bottles and filled them anew with tap water (it happens).

2. When you shower, keep your eyes and mouth closed, and brush your teeth with bottled water as well.

3. Don’t eat anything that has been washed in the local water. Salads, fruits, vegetables and even produce on a sandwich can all carry the bacteria of the water in which they were "washed." Many restaurants, especially in the areas catering to tourists, actually have filtered water for that purpose. Ask the server, and hope you get the truth.

4. Food from street vendors is OK, but be judicious in what you order. Sometimes the meat will sit in the stall, unrefrigerated, until it is consumed. Don’t eat what isn’t cooked in front of you from a street vendor.

5. Get plenty of sleep. When I went to India, I traveled for 22 hours, leaving home at 5 a.m. and arriving in India at 10:30 p.m. and then going to my hotel. That takes a toll on your body, and if you’re already feeling ill, it will exacerbate the problem.

6. Bring a selection of over-the-counter medicines for the typical problems you have everywhere. Tylenol and Advil can work wonders, and Dramamine is good if you’re prone to motion sickness and might want to do something like a boat excursion on a cruise.

7. Use hand sanitizer. It's cheap, it comes in small-enough packages to bring in your carry-on, and it weighs next to nothing. A squirt of hand sanitizer before eating will kill most of the germs you picked up on railings, door handles, handholds in the metro and all sorts of places. It's not being germophobic, just cautious.

If you have medical needs, be they pills, syringes of insulin or anything like that, you should bring a note from your doctor on official letterhead explaining what they are and why you need them. Getting locked up on drug charges for something benign would also ruin a trip.

Reading the precautions made me think I would starve at the expense of not getting an upset stomach. The reality is that most restaurant food is probably safe, and even small amounts of questionable food probably won’t pose a problem.

There are also “safe drinks.” Anyhting that has been boiled is OK. The chai (tea) that street vendors carry around in thermoses is not only good, but perfectly fine, as the water is hot enough to kill the bacteria.

I managed to spend two weeks in India without even a hint of sickness. At one point, I wanted a chicken sandwich at an airport. It had quite a bit of lettuce on it, and I saw an American-looking pilot standing a short distance away, so I asked him if it was safe to eat there.

“I thought Americans were brave,” he said jokingly, in an accent I couldn’t quite place.

“Yes well, under the right circumstances, I suppose,” I replied.

“It’s perfectly safe to eat here,” he replied. "I eat here all the time, and I never get sick." He added that he was Polish and flew for one of India’s airlines. I talked with him for a while about India’s domestic air carriers, finding out that most of them have American and European pilots who have a tough time getting into the competitive industry back home.

When I went to get that sandwich I had been eying, the friendly Pole shouted after me, “Be brave, American!”

We both laughed, but I still prefer being a bit more cautious than brave. I ate all kinds of food in India, and I enjoyed it all.

The only worrisome part came when my friend and I ordered Jack and cokes, only to get them in glasses full of ice. We looked at each other and decided guzzling them was preferable to letting the ice melt.


goa india said...

thanks for that valuable info

Tina said...

This is good advice...I appreciate it!

I recently began planning a trip to India and came across a great new site called Peterman's Eye Travel. Thought I'd share...