What you don't know can hurt you!
After scheduling time off work months in advance, booking your flight, and buying your sun-screen and swimsuit, getting sick is definitely not what you are hoping for. That's why, along with planning your itinerary, you will also need to become familiar with some not-so-pleasant things you may meet on the road. Below are a list of ten leading causes of sickness in travellers, especially in Mexico and Central America.
Food Poisoning and DiarrhoeaFood Poisoning and Traveller's Diarrhoea, also known as Turista and Delhi Belly, occurs when foreign or toxic bacteria are introduced to the intestines. While symptoms (runny stools, nausea, abdominal cramps, bloating, fever and malaise) can be aggravated by fatigue, jet lag, and a change in diet or climate, they are almost always related to poor hygiene - usually contaminated food or water.
How to avoid Food Poisoning and Traveller's Diarrhoea:
- Wash your hands frequently.
- Eat only in sanitary areas. Street food is high-risk. Many street-side restaurants also lack running water or do not have sinks in the bathrooms. In such places, buy only bottled drinks and pre-packaged foods to be safe.
- As the water in undeveloped countries is often contaminated, washing raw fruit and vegetables is not enough. If you have access to a kitchen, use the iodine or chlorine drops that are available in any drugstore to soak your produce. Otherwise, eat only fruits that you can peel. Salads and salsas in restaurants are not recommended, unless the menu specifies that all produce is sanitized.
- While you may be partial to having your steaks cooked rare, it is better while travelling to eat all meat well-done and food that is piping-hot. Cooked foods which have been left at room temperature or those that have been left uncovered are particularly hazardous (including condiments such as hot sauce or mayonnaise). Certain types of fish (barracuda, red snapper, grouper, kingfish, amberjack and sea bass, moray eel and sturgeon) may be toxic.
What to Do if You Notice Symptoms:
- Don't panic. Simply being exposed to a different environment (including new types of bacteria) can be enough to temporarily upset the digestive system. TD, while inconvenient, is usually mild and passes within a few hours or a day. However, if you have bloody stools, vomiting, severe pain, shaking chills or a high fever, do not take anti-diarrhoeal - see a doctor immediately.
- Taking bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol) can help prevent TD and alleviate symptoms, though it may cause constipation and temporary blackening of the tongue and stools. Eating dried or fresh blueberries is also reputed to help. Drinking orange juice and eating acidic fruit and garlic can help keep bad bacteria counts low, while eating yogurt with active acidophilus can keep good bacteria counts high. Many Mexicans believe that eating spicy chillies with one's food also helps to keep the appetite healthy.
- As soon as you start noticing symptoms, make sure to drink lots of water. You may not feel like putting anything in your stomach, but one of the greatest risks of diarrhoea is dehydration - particularly in hot climates. If you can't get a hold of a re-hydrating sports drink (such as Gatorade), you can make your own solution by mixing six teaspoons of sugar and one teaspoon of salt with a litre of water.
- Avoid hard-to-digest foods, including dairy products, and stay away from caffeine and alcohol, which take water from the body. Anti-diarrhoeal tablets are to be used only if you feel they are necessary; while they may alleviate symptoms, they can prolong the sickness.
Jet LagJet lag is a result of a change in the body's internal clock, and may result in tiredness, insomnia and an upset stomach. While not life-threatening, it can take the joy out of the first day or two of your trip.
A Few Tips for Combating Jet Lag:
- If travelling West to East, stay out of the sun until a day after your arrival. If travelling East to West, go for a brisk walk as soon as possible after arriving.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol and drink plenty of water.
- Don't plan too much for the day of and the morning after your arrival. Allow your body time to acclimate.
- A small dose of melatonin (0.5-5 mg) before bed can also help one to adjust to the new time zone.
Altitude SicknessAltitude sickness is caused by dry air, lack of oxygen and low barometric pressure at high altitudes. Symptoms include headaches, dehydration, nausea, dizziness, insomnia, fatigue and shortness of breath.
Remedies for Altitude Sickness:
- The best thing to do is to gradually increase altitude in order to get used to it, though there are some medicines which may help prevent it. If you know you will be visiting mountainous regions, you may want to ask your doctor about these before leaving the country.
- Gingko biloba (at a dosage of 100 mg every 12 hours) may also help.
- Avoid alcohol, eat light meals and do not over-exert yourself.
- If symptoms worsen, especially if one develops breathlessness, confusion, lethargy or an unsteady gait, it is essential to descend to a lower altitude to prevent a cerebral or pulmonary edema.
HepatitisHepatitis A is a liver infection caused by a virus that is transmitted through human faeces. It is often spread by children, as symptoms are mild for children but incapacitating for adults. It is generally contracted via contaminated food or water. Symptoms appear two to six weeks after infection and include: fever, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and fatigue. As the condition worsens, it may cause jaundice (yellowed skin and eyes), dark urine, light stools that may contain pus, itching and hives.
- Vaccines are available for this illness; contact your doctor before travel if you wish to play it safe.
- Like food poisoning. Hepatitis A is generally spread through poor hygiene. Wash your hands frequently, especially before eating. Also be careful of what you eat and who is preparing it.
- Though once contracted there is no specific treatment, it is best to drink lots of water, avoid alcohol and drugs, and to rest.
MalariaMalaria is caused by parasites in infected mosquitoes. Symptoms (which may appear from six days to several months after travel) are flu-like and include fever, shaking chills, headache, fatigue, muscle aches, dizziness, appetite loss, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
How to Avoid Malaria:The best way to avoid Malaria is to avoid mosquitoes: wear insect repellent (with DEET), wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and stay inside at dusk. There are anti-malarial drugs available, but no vaccines.
TyphoidTyphoid Fever is a contagious infection of the intestines that affects the whole body. It is caused by a bacterium called Salmonella typhi that is transmitted by contaminated food or water. Symptoms usually start one to three weeks after exposure and include: high fever, headache, sore throat, vomiting, diarrhoea, skin rash, weakness and an inability to think clearly.
How to Prevent Typhoid:
- As it is possible for people to carry and spread the disease without suffering symptoms themselves, hygiene and common sense are again your best protectors.
- Vaccines are available, see your doctor if you are worried about exposure.
TapewormTapeworms are parasites that enter the body through contaminated and undercooked pork, beef or fish. In mild infections, there are few symptoms; in heavy infections, there may be diarrhoea, abdominal cramps (resembling hunger pains), flatulence, distension, nausea and weight loss.
What to Do About Tapeworms:Again, good hygiene and discernment in food choices cannot be overstressed. Wash your hands, and don't eat undercooked meat.
ChagasChagas Disease is a parasitic infection transmitted by triatomine insects (kissing bugs) which inhabit crevices in the walls and roofs of substandard housing. These blood-sucking insects lay its faeces on the skin as they bite and the person becomes infected after scratching the bite, unknowingly rubbing the faeces in the wound or later rubbing it in the eyes. Symptoms may begin within days of infection or after many years, including: swollen eyes, fatigue, fever, swollen lymph glands, skin rash. Generally, symptoms last up to eight weeks and then disappear on their own, even without treatment.
How to Prevent Chagas:This disease is rare in travellers, but if you are going to stay in a house made of mud, adobe or thatch, use a bed net and strong insecticide. If you suspect you may have it, get a blood test; there are medications available for the acute stages but not after it has progressed for years. After 10-40 years of infection, there is risk of developing cardiac problems, enlargement of the oesophagus or enlargement of the bowels.
AmoebasAmoebas are single-celled organisms that, once ingested, settle in the large intestine. They are passed via human faeces and can contaminate water supplies, fruits and vegetables where human faeces are used as fertilizer and be transferred on the dirty hands of infected people. Symptoms can include pain and gurgling sounds in the abdomen, loose stools, bloating and fever. Though in many cases there are few or mild symptoms, amoebas can cause intestinal ulcers, increased mucus production, internal bleeding, diarrhoea, liver abscesses and brain abscesses.
What to Do About Amoebas:There are no forms of immunization, but many medicines to treat amoebas. If you have continuing diarrhoea, especially if it contains blood or mucus or is accompanied by dizziness, contact your doctor. If you have severe abdominal pain, especially in the right side, and a fever, see a doctor right away.
SunstrokeSunstroke is an acute, life-threatening condition in which the body's heat-regulating system fails, due to prolonged exposure to high temperatures and/or excessive production of heat. When the body is unable to return to a normal temperature, major organs can be damaged. Sunstroke can be preceded by heat exhaustion, when excess loss of fluids and salt results in marked weakness. Anyone exposed to high temperatures is at risk of heat exhaustion/sunstroke, but young children, elderly people, and people with certain chronic conditions or on certain medications may be more vulnerable. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include: weakness and fatigue, aching muscles, nausea, clammy skin, weak, rapid pulse, dizziness, heavy sweating, fainting and headache. Symptoms of sunstroke include: hot, dry skin, no sweating, flushed, pale or purple skin, hyperventilation, rapid bounding pulse, headache, muscle cramps, disorientation, agitation, lethargy, convulsions and an extremely high body temperature.
How to Respond to Sunstroke:
- Sunstroke is a medical emergency. If you think someone has sunstroke, call an ambulance and do what you can to lower their body temperature (i.e. cold bath, ice packs -cooling at the head and neck is a priority.)
- To prevent the heat exhaustion that leads to sunstroke, avoid staying in direct sunlight for long periods, rest when tired, and drink lots and lots of water.