Communications: Patient Education

Patient Education: Staying Healthy During International Travel; Make a Pre-Trip Visit

Tuesday, May 20, 2008  
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Booking airline tickets and packing your bags shouldn’t be the only preparation you make before a trip out of the country. You should also schedule a visit with your family physician to discuss possible health hazards and find out about any immunizations you may need.

"Family physicians can advise travelers on vaccine-preventable diseases and prescribe medications that if taken ahead of time can ward off some illnesses,” said Dr. James Struve, a family physician with Bloomington Lake Clinic in Minneapolis. "The key is getting into the doctor early enough not only to discuss health issues but also so the vaccines have time to be protective.

Dr. Struve says patients should visit their doctor four weeks to six weeks before a scheduled trip, even earlier if possible. Vaccines a traveler might need to get include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, influenza, Japanese encephalitis, measles-mumps-rubella, meningococcal meningitis, pneumococcal, polio, rabies, tetanus and diphtheria toxoids, typhoid fever, varicella (chickenpox) and yellow fever. Some countries require proof that you have been vaccinated against yellow fever before you arrive.

During a travel consultation appointment, a family physician can offer advice based on the patient’s specific destination, as well as any current recommendations from The Centers for Disease Control ( For example, a person traveling to China for the 2008 Olympic Games should be vaccinated for hepatitis A, and typhoid fever, as well as be up-to-date with vaccinations routine in the US.

"Their family physician would also want to talk with them about the dangers of other diseases they could pick up if they plan to visit any rural areas of China, as well as how to avoid common ailments like traveler’s diarrhea,” Struve said. "Physicians can prescribe an antibiotic to use in the event a person gets an aggressive form of traveler’s diarrhea while out of the country.”

Patients visiting areas where malaria is a concern can prepare ahead as well. There are medications that can be taken before, during and after a trip to prevent the infection, which is spread by mosquitoes. Travelers to sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Asia, and parts of Central America and the Caribbean may be at risk for malaria. Several options for malaria prophylaxis are usually discussed.

Along with concerns related to your specific destination, it’s also a good idea to have your family physician assess your current health and discuss the impact your travels may have on any chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma or heart problems.

"It’s a good idea to have a copy of your prescriptions with generic names, your vaccination record, and other personal health information with you", said Dr. Struve. "That way if there is a medical emergency, the attending physician will have access to the information.”

Because health products used in the United States are not always available in other locations, especially in developing countries, Dr. Struve says it is a good idea to pack a health kit to take along on your trip. Your family physician can recommend specific items, but suggested items generally include any prescription medications you are taking, pain relievers, non-drowsy decongestants and antihistamines, medicines for upset stomach and motion sickness, antibiotic cream, adhesive bandages, sunscreen, lip balm, insect repellents that contain DEET, a thermometer, tweezers and hand sanitizers. Remember that prescription medications must be in there original containers and over-the-counter liquid medications must meet Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) guidelines.

"Drinking contaminated water or food, getting bitten by an insect, or coming in contact with an infected person can make a traveler very sick,” Dr. Struve said. "Working with your family doctor to educate yourself before you leave the country will help to assure you have a safe and enjoyable trip.”

The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians is a professional association of approximately 3,000 family physicians, family medicine residents and medical students organized to assist family physicians in providing quality medical care in Minnesota. The MAFP is the largest medical specialty organization in Minnesota and is a state chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians, one of the largest national medical organizations in the United States with more than 103,000 members.

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