International travel can pose various risks to health, depending on the characteristics of both the traveller and the travel. Travellers may encounter sudden and significant changes in altitude, humidity, microbes, and temperature, which can result in ill-health. In addition, serious health risks may arise in areas where accommodation is of poor quality, hygiene and sanitation are inadequate, medical services are not well developed and clean water is unavailable.
International travel is on the rise, as millions of people travel for professional, social, recreational and humanitarian purposes each year. All travellers must prepare for the variety of health risks they can be exposed to in unfamiliar environments before, during and after they travel.
People planning to travel should seek advice on the potential hazards in their chosen destinations and understand how best to protect their health and minimize the risk of acquiring disease. Forward planning, appropriate preventive measures and careful precautions can protect the health of travellers, and minimize the risks of accident and of acquiring disease.
Although the medical profession and the travel industry can provide extensive help and sound advice, it remains the traveller’s responsibility to seek information, to understand the risks involved and to take the necessary precautions to protect their health while travelling.
When determining the health risks of international travel, travellers and health professionals should consider the following key factors:
- mode of transport
- duration and season of travel
- purpose of travel
- standards of accommodation, food hygiene and sanitation
- behaviour of the traveller
- underlying health of the traveller
Travellers may encounter the following health risks depending on their destination:
- animal and insect bites, including mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, and some flies, which can spread diseases such as malaria
- exposure to blood or other bodily fluids
- environmental changes, such as altitude, humidity, temperature
- foodborne and waterborne diseases
- inadequate medical services
- injuries, including from road traffic accidents or recreational activities
- psychological health, including stress and culture shock
Travellers may also be exposed to a number of infectious diseases, and many of these can be prevented by vaccination. However, there are some infectious diseases, including some of the most dangerous, for which no vaccines exist.
Destinations where accommodation, hygiene and sanitation, medical care and water quality are of a high standard pose relatively few serious risks to the health of travellers. Where these services are not provided, travellers should take stringent precautions to avoid illness. Travel warnings from governmental sources should be taken seriously.
- contact a travel medicine centre or a physician, preferably 4–8 weeks before departure to receive any required vaccinations;
- read up on local diseases related to your destination;
- request information on malaria risk and prevention of mosquito bites. This may include purchasing appropriate preventive medication and packing a bednet and insect repellent;
- get a medical and dental check-up;
- obtain prescriptions for medication according to length of stay and assemble a suitable medical kit;
- purchase medical insurance with appropriate cover abroad
- eat only thoroughly cooked food and drink only bottled or packaged cold drinks. Boil drinking-water if safety is doubtful.
- be aware of accidents or problems related to traffic, animals, allergies, sun and sport;
- carry a card showing your blood group;
- wear a medical alert bracelet, if you have allergies or a chronic disease
Travellers should obtain a medical examination on their return if they:
- return with a fever from a country where malaria is or may be present
- suffer from a chronic disease
- experience illness in the weeks following their return home
- received treatment for malaria while travelling
- may have been exposed to a serious infectious disease
- spent more than 3 months in a developing country