There is an old saying - if you are going to be ill, try not to be ill when you're on holiday! Anyone whose been ill whilst abroad knows that it's horrible - not only do you have to cope with the illness, you have to deal with it in unfamiliar surroundings and find a cure via unfamiliar practices and procedures.
To try to help you avoid holiday health problems, we've set out some general advice and information below, together with more detailed information on some common ailments.
Health advice for before you go
- Don't rely on EHIC (European Health Insurance Card). It only covers emergency medical treatment and it doesn't cover dental emergencies at all, unless they are life threatening. Make sure you have good quality health insurance. It doesn't have to cost the earth. See our travel insurance page.
- The Department of Health produces a booklet - 'Health Advice for Travellers' (T5). It is available from most Post Offices and online.
- Seek advice about vaccinations at least 6 - 8 weeks before you travel and take your vaccination certificate on with you on holiday.
- Pack any medication in your hand luggage.
- Carry a spare doctor's prescription for your medication in a separate bag. Note the generic names of prescription drugs as brand names may vary abroad.
- Take a prescription for your glasses and a small first aid kit.
Health advice for on the Flight
Taking a flight is a health hazard. In addition to DVT, (see below) you will be cooped up in a plane only inches away from other passengers. Cabin pressure and atmosphere dry the skin and contribute to swollen hands and feet. Babies in particular become dehydrated on flights.
- Reduce dehydration by drinking water and cutting down on alcohol and coffee during the flight.
- Take your shoes off when you are seated to let your feet breathe.
- Stretch your legs every hour and wriggle your toes and ankles to keep the blood circulating.
- Consider travel sickness pills / wrist bands (see the article below)
- Suck boiled sweets or yawn to stabilise popping ears.
- Sit as near the front of the plane as possible - the air is 'fresher'.
Health advice for whilst you're away
- If you or any of your party requires emergency treatment, make sure you call your travel insurer's emergency helpline as soon as is practical and take their advice. If you don't, they may refuse to pay for any treatment required.
- If malaria tablets are required, make sure you take them whilst on holiday and complete the course when you return home.
- Use insect repellent. You may need a different repellent for children.
- Mosquitoes can carry 80 different diseases. They like to feed in the early evening. Cover arms, legs and feet, avoid wearing black (they are attracted to black) and try not to spend time near stagnant water.
- Spray rooms with insecticides before you go out for an evening meal (remembering to shut doors and windows afterwards).
- Burn insect repellent tablets and coils at night. These are much cheaper in larger foreign supermarkets than in the UK.
- Don't scratch bites - they will become inflamed and infected, and could scar. Soothe them with antihistamine cream, calamine lotion and ice. Menthol spray reduces itching and arnica cream reduces inflammation.
- If bites begin to turn nasty seek medical advice immediately.
- Unless you're sure it's safe, don't drink the water. This advice includes not eating ice-cream or having ice in your drinks and don't eat salads or shell fish, which are usually washed in tap water. Drink boiled or bottled water or use purifying tablets.
- Beware of food left uncovered on display at room temperature - that includes buffets and the sweet trolley.
Beware of strong sun - especially between 11am and 3 pm. Apply high factor sun creams frequently and wear a sun hat (see our sun safety tips article below).
Prevent travel sickness
Travel sickness is caused by conflicting messages being sent to the brain by the eyes, stomach and the organs of balance in the ears. It's a common problem, especially in children.
There are several medicines available from your pharmacist that can help, including Stugeron tablets and Sea-Legs . But note that over the counter travel sickness tablets can cause drowsiness, they can't be taken with alcohol and are not suitable for all people.
Other natural remedies include ginger supplements, Nelsons Travella (a homeopathic treatment) and Sea Bands (around £7.50 each).
Economy class syndrome
Many doctors agree that taking a long haul flight in cramped conditions can lead to blood clots, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT) - often called 'economy-class syndrome'.
DVT bloodclots develop in the legs and can break away and lodge in the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism that blocks the blood flow. One study showed that one in ten passengers developed a blood clot following a long haul flight. But the risk of a fatal clot is small and there are some things you can do to reduce the risk of DVT.
Before the flight
Some people are more at risk than others, including those with high blood pressure, a heart condition, previous DVT or a know clotting tendency. Seek medical advice before you fly. If you are 6ft or over, try to book seats with more leg room. This may cost extra (anywhere between £5 and over £25) but is worth the investment.
In the air
Exercise is important during flights, whatever 'class' you are travelling in. Take a walk in the aisles at least every hour to keep the blood circulating.
Stretch your legs regularly when you're sitting down. Rotate your ankles and wriggle your toes. You can also buy an Airogym to exercise in your seat. It's 'clinically proven to improve blood flow through the veins'!
Drink plenty of water and cut down on alcohol, coffee and salty snacks such as peanuts and crisps as they dehydrate you.
Consider wearing flight socks (special support stockings) to help your circulation during flights. Two types are available.
Taking a low-dose aspirin thins the blood, also reducing the risk of DVT.
We all like a healthy glow, but a tan is the body's way of protecting you against the sun. Follow these tips to minimise the risk of damaging your skin:
- Use a sunscreen with a high SPF (at least 15) and re-apply every two hours. If you choose not to do this for your whole holiday you should do so for at least for the first few days.
- You get no extra protection from applying a low factor sun cream twice - two SPF7s do not equal SPF14!
- Remember sunscreen alone is not enough, and is of little benefit if you only use it to be able to sunbathe for longer.
- The sun is at its strongest between 11am and 3pm. Try to avoid being in the sun during this period.
- If you must be in the sunlight during this period (for example, if you're on a trip) wear loose fitting clothing made from tightly woven materials, such as cotton, and a sun hat.
- Protect yours and your children's eyes with proper sunglasses. Look for the kitemark.
- Being in or around water increases your chances of burning due to reflection. Use waterproof sunscreen and re-apply after swimming.
- Take extra care with children. They should wear waterproof sunscreen and T-shirts when swimming. You can also buy children's beachwear designed to give greater sun protection.
- When you apply insect repellent over sunscreen you stop the sunscreen sticking to your skin, and cut the effectiveness of both by at least half. If you need both either buy a sunscreen with built in insect repellent or wear a higher factor sunscreen next to your skin, with a generous layer of insect repellent over the top.
- Don't use old sunscreens, their effectiveness decreases dramatically after they have past their use by date.