Staying healthy whilst travelling: don't forget the basics!

by Mark Snelling
Posted on 1st June 2013

Most experienced travellers will understand how important it is to get all the right jabs before departure. Most of us will also make sure we pack the appropriate clothing for the climate we're heading into. And not too many people (we hope) will forget to bring their passport and travel documents with them to the airport.

But once we're up and away, it becomes much, much easier to forget some of the more basic rules of travel health. We'll probably hear someone at some point tell us to eat safely, drink safely and wash our hands, but do we pay attention?

We're keen to get on with our exciting new adventure, and besides, we like to think we're tough and resilient, we've packed the Imodium just in case, so what's the worst that can happen?

The worst - it turns out -- can be pretty bad. A bit of a funny tummy could be just the beginning. Poor hand hygiene and risky eating and drinking can lead to a whole host of illnesses, including typhoid, dysentery, cholera, gardia, amoebas, gastroenteritis and hepatitis E. If you're on a short-term deployment, it could mean you just don't get the job done. On longer assignments, it can mean chronic illness, low-productivity and high levels of stress.

proper motivation can be more than enough to offset a lack of formal training

So let's do a bit of quick revision!

Wash your hands!

Research carried out in 2011 by Queen Mary, University of London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine revealed that almost 30 percent of people in the UK had faecal bacteria on their hands. As the BBC website rather bluntly put it: "Poo, it's getting everywhere".

One of the most shocking findings in the study was that 11 percent of hands in the country were so "grossly contaminated", they were carrying as many germs as a dirty toilet bowl. Interestingly, the research also seemed to indicate that we tell ourselves that we wash our hands a lot, when we really don't.

Getting into the habit of good hand hygiene could spare you a whole world of trouble, so remember always to wash your hands after you've been to the bathroom, after you've touched babies or animals or have been shaking hands with a lot of people, and always before you prepare any food. (Make sure your fingernails are trimmed short and you carry some antibacterial gel for when there's no water around.)

When you do wash your hands, sing "Happy Birthday" slowly to yourself. That will ensure you take at least 30 seconds over it. And make sure you do the following:

  1. Wet hands first and apply soap
  2. Rub your hands palm to palm
  3. Rub your hands together palm to the back of the hand
  4. Interlock your fingers and rub hands together
  5. Clasp each thumb with the opposite hand and rotate.

And when you've finished, make sure you dry your hands thoroughly, on a paper towel if possible.

Eat safely!

The simplest rule for eating whilst travelling is "boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it". The food you buy might look tasty, but it might very well be also serving up a veritable smorgasbord of bacteria. In some parts of the world, fruit and vegetables on a market stall might have been "cleaned" with water from an open sewer. In others, human excrement will have been used as fertiliser.

Cooked food that has been held at room temperature for several hours and served without being reheated can also be a recipe for disaster.

Travelling with your own little stock of healthy snacks could save you if you're feeling hungry and tempted to tuck into that glistening bunch of grapes on the buffet table. It can be awkward if someone is offering you hospitality. If the worse comes to the worst, you might tell your host that you have a weak stomach or have started a fast.

Drink safely!

A common misconception is that contaminated water looks brown or murky. Not true. The dangerous microorganisms that lurk in dirty water are not visible to the human eye and can do you a lot of harm.

If you're in a big city, safe bottled water is usually available, but this may not be the case if you are staying in rural areas or travelling. Avoid fruit juices, which may be diluted with dirty water and stay clear of ice cubes in drinks. Boiling water for at least one whole minute is the most effective method of water purification. You can fill a clean bottle with boiled water and leave to cool for a safe source of water on the move.

This may all be advice that you've heard many times before. Just remember that taking a few small precautions can make the difference between an inspiring, challenging and rewarding time overseas and a protracted period of misery.

Mark Snelling was a counsellor and lead trainer with InterHealth. He has extensive international experience of working with aid workers, missionaries, journalists, police and military personnel. Prior to training as a therapist, Mark worked as an international delegate with the British Red Cross Society, completing a number of short and long-term missions in Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.