Bugs on a plane? Here’s how to stay healthy travelling overseas

Travelling Well | Michael Gebicki | Posted on 31 January 2020

Worried about the coronavirus outbreak? Reduce your risk with these healthy travel tips.

About half of all Australians who travel overseas will face a health-related problem. In most cases it’s minor, such as sunburn or jetlag-induced fatigue, but on average one in every 10,000 Australian travellers requires medical repatriation.

Overseas travel exposes you to medical risks you probably don’t face at home. Different water, food, climate and exposure to exotic microbes can breach your body’s defences and lay you low. Getting sick when you’re on the road is depressing, and potentially dangerous, but there’s plenty you can do to minimise the risk.

Girl with cold blowing her nose at airport lounge

The current coronavirus is thought to be spread by contact with droplets from an infected individual, through coughs and sneezes, and by contact with contaminated surfaces.


How to stay healthy while travelling



See a doctor

There is no single travel health strategy that works for all travellers in all places and for all occasions. Where you’re going, what you’ll be doing and your medical history are all factors that determine what you need to do to stay healthy. At least a month before travel time talk to your GP and follow their advice. If you’re going somewhere remote, such as Africa or isolated parts of Asia, you might like to see a travel medical specialist such as an International Travel Vaccination Centre or Travel Doctor.

Travel insurance 

Don’t think of leaving home without it. Medical coverage is a standard feature of RACV and other travel insurance policies. If you have a pre-existing medical condition you need to advise your insurer since these are generally excluded without prior notice. Even pregnancy is regarded as a pre-existing condition. If you plan to tackle adventure sports such as remote-area hiking or skiing, you need to read the product disclosure statement that comes with your policy to make sure you’re covered. Even if you’re taking a cruise around Australia you need travel insurance. If you need medical treatment on board, there’s a good chance the ship’s doctor will not have a Medicare registration number, and that means your treatment will not be covered by Medicare. 

Viruses

The current outbreak of 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) spreading from China has captured global attention. Travellers are more at risk since they have a greater likelihood of coming into contact with those infected with the disease, some of whom will show no symptoms. At the moment there is no vaccine, and its effects range from mild flu-like symptoms to serious complications that require hospital treatment. The current coronavirus is thought to be spread by contact with droplets from an infected individual, through coughs and sneezes, and by contact with contaminated surfaces. A paper or surgical mask can help block such droplets and prevent infection via hand-to-mouth contact. Some other viruses are spread by the same mechanism. One that afflicts many cruise ships is Norovirus, which causes gastroenteritis. Norovirus is highly contagious and spreads quickly through infected food and hand-to-mouth contact. Even something as simple as grabbing a handrail or passing the salt shaker to a fellow diner can spread the infection. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most effective ways for travellers to protect themselves against viruses include washing hands with soap and water or with hand sanitiser before eating, and avoiding touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Avoid buffet-style dining in favour of a la carte if an outbreak is reported on your vessel.

Food and drink

Bali belly, Pharaoh’s curse, the Aztec two-step – diarrhoea affects between 30 and 70 per cent of all travellers, depending on the destination and season of travel. Bacterial pathogens are the most common cause, spread by eating food prepared by an infected person or even by eating food that has been grown using contaminated water. In areas of risk, essentially anywhere in the third world, avoid salads and raw vegetables unless it comes from a trusted source. Stick to fruits you peel yourself, and always wash your hands before eating or disinfect with hand sanitiser. Food in large, western-style hotels and food that is prepared to order, including freshly cooked street food, is generally safe. 


Water

There are some places where you definitely don’t want to drink the water that comes out of the tap. Even brushing your teeth can expose you to bacteria, viruses, protozoa and intestinal worms that can live in water, and they’re a potential hazard for travellers. Sterile bottled water is available just about everywhere these days. If not, there’s a quick and easy solution if you have an electric kettle in your hotel room. Common intestinal pathogens are rendered inactive by boiling. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends boiling for one minute. If you don’t trust the water you might not want ice in your drinks. There is no guarantee that the ice is made from boiled water and some pathogens can survive freezing temperatures. If you’re eating out and have doubts about the water on the table, soda water is a risk-free alternative.

Air quality

Every breath you take in some cities is bad for your health. Delhi, Beijing, Varanasi and Agra have some of the world’s worst air pollution, many times more harmful than the level the World Health Organisation regards as safe. Long-term exposure to air pollution carries elevated risks for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. Most travellers might be in these places only a few days and there is a lack of clinical research on the effects of short-term exposure, however many visitors report breathing difficulties. For concerned travellers, face masks are a partial solution but they vary widely in effectiveness. Those that work best are P2 Particulate Respirators but a tight fit is essential and facial hair can reduce the effectiveness.

Reciprocal medical agreements

Several countries have reciprocal health-care agreements with Australia. Typically that covers you for medical emergencies, although a co-payment may be required. The list includes Belgium, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden and Finland. What you’re covered for in those countries varies but you can check the details if you Google “Smartraveller reciprocal health care agreements”.


What to pack in your travel medical kit
  • Hand sanitiser
  • Sunscreen
  • Paracetamol or aspirin
  • Dressing for cuts and abrasions 
  • Diarrhoea medication such as Lomotil or Imodium
  • Cold and flu tablets
  • Antiseptic solution such as Betadine 
  • Fluid and electrolyte replacement powder or tablets
  • Insect repellent
  • Multivitamins
  • Eye drops

Cover yourself against sickness on your travels with RACV Travel Insurance.