Your next vacation is just around the corner. Maybe you’re headed off to your favorite spot for a week of fun and relaxation, or a new locale for an exotic adventure. While you may be excited to leave your cares and worries behind, it’s still important to take steps to stay healthy on your journey.

Sunburn, dehydration, diarrhea, infection and illness can take the fun out your vacation. The good news is that there are things you can do before, during and after your trip to help you stay healthy. Read on to learn more.

Before you go: Preparing for a safe and healthy vacation

A healthy vacation starts at home, in the planning process. Below are a few things to keep in mind.

Do your research: Travel safety awareness

Look for travel information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for the types of illnesses common in your destination. This is especially important if you’re going somewhere tropical where there’s a higher risk of infectious diseases. Knowing the signs and symptoms of these illnesses can help you determine if and when you need medical care.

It’s also a good idea to check out the U.S. Department of State’s Travel Advisories webpage to learn if there are high crime rates or other personal safety or security concerns for the areas that you’re visiting. This site also provides recommendations about how to behave so you’re less likely to be the target of crime.

Talk to a travel health expert

The CDC recommends talking to a travel health expert at least 4-6 weeks before you leave. This type of doctor can help you get vaccines or medicines you’ll need to visit a specific county. They can also provide information and advice about staying healthy on your travels.

What to pack to maintain health: Medications and more

When writing your packing list for your trip, make room for the following:

  • Prescription medications.If you are packing medicine, make sure they’re labeled (ideally in their original prescription bottles), and in your carry-on, instead of your checked luggage. It’s also a good idea to bring medicine for additional days, just in case there are travel delays.
  • Over-the-counter medicines.It’s not fun to get sick on vacation but it’s easier when you have what you need to take care of yourself. Depending on your destination, it may not be easy to get medicines for common illnesses. So, it can be a good idea to pack things like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), loperamide (Imodium), bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol), saline spray, antibiotic cream, and cold and cough medicine.
  • Health insurance card.You should also carry a card in your wallet with your health information in case of emergency. As a backup, consider taking a picture of your insurance card with your phone. If you are a HealthPartners member and use our mobile app, you can find a digital version of your card by tapping on “ID card” on the home screen.
  • Healthy snacks.It’s a good idea to keep nuts, protein bars, granola, dried fruit or crackers on hand when traveling. That way you’ll have something to eat if you get hungry and there aren’t any safe food choices around. Plus, it can help you sustain your energy during long travel days.
  • Hand wipes and sanitizer.Frequently washing your hands is the best way to prevent illness, but you won’t always have access to a sink and clean water. So, keep wipes and sanitizer with you on the plane and whenever you’re away from the hotel.
  • Other items for your destination.Depending on where you’re going, it can also be a good idea to pack insect repellent, sunscreen and water-purification tablets.

When you’re there: Vacation health tips to follow

Vacations are for fun. But for your health and safety, don’t take unnecessary risks. Use your common sense and follow these tips to protect your health.

Be safe

While you may be concerned about catching a virus or getting an infection while traveling, it’s important to remember that severe illness, injury or death are more likely caused by:

  • A medical condition you already have such as diabetes or heart disease.
  • Accidents such as road traffic incidents or drowning.
  • Depending on the country, traffic laws may be different or not as heavily enforced. If you’re walking anywhere, always be traffic-aware and don’t expect drivers to yield to pedestrians. If you’re driving someplace, make sure your vehicle is in good working condition and try to avoid driving at night. Or consider hiring a local driver.

    Be aware of your personal safety, too. When possible, avoid carrying or displaying large amounts of cash in public. For example, take note of your surroundings when withdrawing cash from an ATM to help reduce the chances you’ll be targeted for pickpocketing or robbery.

Research your care options and have a backup plan

It’s no fun to get sick while on vacation. It can be even more stressful if you’re hurt or injured and can’t find the care you need. Many domestic insurance plans have limited or no coverage for international travel.

Before you leave, research the medical care that’s available at your travel destination. Also, consider purchasing medical evacuation insurance, which would cover the cost of an emergency trip back to the United States.

Medical evacuation to care for a serious injury or illness can cost $50,000 or more and is rarely covered by traditional health insurance. But contact your insurance provider to make sure before purchasing a supplemental plan.

Know when the water is safe to drink

In some places of the world, especially in countries that are less developed, the tap water might get you sick. So, how do you know if the water is safe for you to drink? Your hotel will generally let you know if you can drink water from the faucet.

If you’re not sure if tap water is safe for you, it’s best to stick with bottled water to avoid bacteria or water-based illnesses. You’ll also want to skip ice and fountain drinks since they could also be made with tap water.

Drink enough water

It’s important to pay attention to how much water you’re drinking – if you don’t drink enough, you could get dehydrated. Symptoms of dehydration are a dry mouth, tiredness, muscle cramping and lightheadedness. You may also urinate less or notice that your urine is dark in color.

If you’re a little dehydrated from a day at the beach, it’s usually not a big deal – just make sure you drink extra to make up for the lost fluid. But if the dehydration continues or gets worse, it can lead to more serious problems like fainting and difficulty breathing.

What causes dehydration?

Common causes of dehydration while traveling include:

  • Not drinking enough fluids.Try to drink at least eight glasses of water a day. You might need even more if you’re spending time in the hot sun or have a packed agenda.
  • Drinking alcohol.Keep in mind that alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it removes water from the body, so don’t count beers and margaritas toward your water total. In fact, if you’ll be drinking alcoholic beverages, it’s a good idea to plan on extra water throughout the day.
  • Traveler’s diarrhea.This is the term used to describe the loose stools and cramping that comes from drinking and eating food and water that contains certain types of bacteria, viruses or parasites while traveling. It affects an estimated 20-50% of travelers in high-risk locations.
  • Vomiting.When you’re sick to your stomach, it deprives your body of the water in the food you eat and drink.

Eat healthy: Do-it-yourself meal ideas when traveling

It’s hard to follow your normal eating patterns while on vacation. You might find yourself eating too much, not enough, or too many things that don’t agree with you. But with a little planning, you should be able to add some balance to your meals.

Rather than eating out for all your meals, you can assemble quick, healthy meals and snacks in your hotel room. This will not only help you eat healthy but can also save you some money.

After you arrive in your destination, head to the local grocery store or market and stock up on healthy foods. Also don’t forget containers so you can bring food when you’re on the go. But keep in mind that some foods may not be safe, depending on your travel destination.

Food safety when traveling

Food Traveling within the U.S. Traveling outside the U.S.
Dry or packaged foods Usually safe Usually safe
Raw foods Usually safe May not be safe
Fresh fruit and vegetables Usually safe Avoid prepared fruits, vegetables and fresh juices.
(May be safer if you can wash, peel or prepare them yourself)
Milk Usually safe Usually safe if pasteurized and in a sealed container
Dairy products Usually safe May not be okay for people who are pregnant or have weakened immune systems
Meats Usually safe Avoid bush meat and wild game

Healthy travel snack ideas

  • Yogurt with granola and dried fruit
  • Snack mix made from granola, dried fruit and nuts
  • Cheese and cracker sandwiches

Protect your skin

It doesn’t matter if your trip is to a warm or cold climate, your skin needs protection if it will be seeing a lot of sun. So it’s important to know how to use sunscreen to prevent sunburn and skin cancer.

No matter your skin tone, you should wear a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher when spending long hours outdoors. And it’s important to reapply sunscreen regularly, especially if you spend time in the water. Too much sun is also bad for your eyes, so wear sunglasses to prevent eye damage. A big floppy hat can be a big help, too.

If you get a sunburn, it’s best to avoid more sun exposures and to wear loose clothing. You’ll also want to make sure you’re drinking enough water because it’s possible to become dehydrated if you have a severe sunburn.

Watch for signs of illness and infection

If you get sick while traveling, it will most likely be a stomach virus like norovirus, a cold or the flu. Usually, treatment involves drinking lots of water, rest and taking care of your symptoms. But it’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for signs of infection such as high fever, chills, headache and fatigue.

What causes infection?

Some ways to be exposed to infectious agents while traveling are:

  • Outdoor activities like hiking and swimming
  • Being in contact with animals
  • New tattoos and piercings
  • Food and beverages
  • Injuries, scratches and bug bites
  • Sexual encounters

Is there an effective way to protect yourself from STIs and STDs?

Here’s the truth of it: if you’re sexually active, there’s always the chance of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

The surest way to avoid getting an STI on your vacation is to not have sex of any kind – vaginal, oral or anal – unless you’re confident that your partner is free of STDs. Also keep in mind that many STDs don’t have symptoms, so you can’t tell if someone has an infection just by looking at them. Getting tested is the only way to know whether a person is free of STIs.

If you choose to have sex, use a condom every time. Condoms lessen your chance of getting any STI. But it’s still possible to get some STDS like herpes, pubic lice, or human papillomavirus (HPV) through skin contact even when using a condom.

When you return: Healthy tips for recovering from vacation

While vacations are a great time to let loose and have fun, they can also be stressful. Some people wonder why they always get sick on vacation or shortly after. It’s actually quite common and could be due to a combination of factors including exposure to more people and more illnesses, or a weakened immune system from less sleep or from increased alcohol consumption while traveling. If you're feeling sick or just not your best, here are five ways to stay healthy after vacation:

  1. Return to your normal sleep pattern
  2. Eat a healthy diet
  3. Make sure you’re drinking enough water
  4. Plan for a day off before you need to return to work or classes
  5. Watch out for post-trip illness and infection

When should you see a doctor if you’re sick after traveling?

If you have symptoms that last more than a few days, it’s a good idea to call the HealthPartners CareLine℠ at 800-551-0859 or the Park Nicollet Nurse Line at 952-993-4665 for advice on what to do next.

You can also hop on a Virtuwell appointment or make an appointment with your doctor.

You should call the doctor if you have a fever over 103 degrees Fahrenheit, or if you have an unusual skin rash or signs of an infection.