Avoiding Infectious Disease During Travel

There’s plenty to do when planning an international trip, including booking flights, hotels, and ground transportation. But have you considered how you’ll stay healthy? Avoiding infectious diseases is one of the most important things you can consider when planning an overseas trip.

Getting the necessary vaccines and making other preparations can help you avoid disease while traveling.

The UPMC Travel Health Program, part of the Center for Care of Infectious Diseases, can help you stay healthy during your trip by getting you prepared.

Learn more about how you can stay healthy during trips.

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What Is the UPMC Travel Health Program?

The UPMC Travel Health Program helps prevent people from coming down with diseases by preparing them for international travel. Examples of diseases they can help you avoid include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, malaria, and yellow fever, among others.

Although medical insurance plans may not cover the program, the fee is affordable for most. The clinic offers some vaccines that primary care providers (PCPs) cannot.

Clinic providers are travel- and tropical medicine-certified disease experts who provide complete travel health care to:

  • Business professionals
  • Missionaries
  • Students
  • Tourists

They also can help people who may be at higher risk medically. Those people may include older adults, people with weakened immune systems, pregnant people, and people with existing medical conditions.

“We recommend that each person or family bring in their itinerary listing where they’re going, what activities they intend to do, with whom they’ll be staying, their medical history, and any special medical conditions, such as if they’ve had a transplant or they’re pregnant,” says Carolyn Fernandes, MD, director, UPMC Travel Health Program. “They can then receive advice tailored specifically for their trip and their health situation.”

The clinic provides vaccinations needed for your destination based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Department of State.

According to Dr. Fernandes, many travelers come into the clinic knowing what vaccines or preventive medications they might need for their specific destination. But some travelers spend thousands of dollars planning their trip without considering how to do it safely.

“We find that older travelers can be more cautious,” Dr. Fernandes says. “Usually, when we see younger travelers, it’s when they’re going on a trip abroad and their parents want the peace of mind knowing their child has taken preventive measures.”

However, going to a travel clinic isn’t just for students or older tourists. It’s wise for anyone, especially if you have a complicated medical history or are on immunosuppressants for a transplant or steroids for asthma.

Travelers ages 25 to 55 should do a risk self-assessment depending on their destination.

“If they’re doing business in a developing country, that’s a good time to get advice,” Dr. Fernandes says. “There’s nothing worse than getting sick somewhere. Don’t take the chance.”

If you do get sick during travel, the clinic also can provide post-travel care.

Top Tips for Staying Healthy While Traveling

If you’re thinking about international travel soon, make a plan to stay healthy. Here are Dr. Fernandes’ top tips for staying healthy while traveling:

1. Do your research. Go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) travel website and look up the country to see what’s recommended. This site is reliable, and both clinicians and laypeople can use it to determine their risk for certain diseases and illnesses.

2. Get vaccinated if the CDC recommends it. These diseases are preventable, and your PCP can give you most common travel vaccines. However, your doctor may send you to a travel clinic or give you a prescription if you need additional vaccines or prophylactic medications. When vaccines are recommended before a trip, make sure to get them several weeks in advance to allow time for your body to build immunity.

3. If there’s any risk of malaria, take preventive steps. Ask your PCP about a prescription for antimalarial medication. And take other precautions, such as wearing the proper clothing and treating clothes and skin with bug spray. Malaria can be life-threatening.

4. Keep an updated list of vaccines you’ve already received. For example, if you get the two-dose hepatitis A vaccine, it’s good for life. The yellow fever vaccine is a one-time dose that, for most casual travelers, will be sufficient for life. The typhoid vaccine is good for two years in the injectable form and five years in the oral form. Make a list of your vaccines and keep it with your passport. Keep your records up to date so you don’t waste money or duplicate a vaccine you don’t need. UPMC patients can find their vaccination records by logging into their patient portal account.

5. Prepare a package of the common over-the-counter (OTC) medications you use regularly. Take it with you in case you need it. Your package should include:

  • Acetaminophen.
  • An antihistamine, such as Benadryl.®
  • Ibuprofen.
  • Something for diarrhea, such as Imodium.®
  • Something for stomach distress, such as Tums® or Pepto Bismol.®
  • OTC sleep aid.

6. Ask yourself: How can I stay healthy on this trip? Then, make an appointment for three weeks to one month ahead of your trip with your PCP or, ideally, a travel medicine specialist. Get vaccines at least two weeks before your trip to build immunity and prevent a costly and disappointing quarantine situation.

7. Consider your COVID-19 risk tolerance. Because airplanes have good air filtration systems, they are fairly safe unless someone near you is sick. The place of highest risk is in the airport, standing in lines in close proximity to other passengers. If you are at low risk of severe illness, you should practice good hand hygiene by washing your hands or using hand sanitizer. If you are high-risk:

  • Don’t eat on short flights.
  • Don’t touch your face or eyes.
  • Get your COVID-19 booster — especially if you’re seeing your family and getting together. Remember, it needs a few weeks to build immunity.
  • Practice good hand hygiene.
  • Wear a well-fitting N95 or KN95 mask in the airport.

Call 412-647-7228 to make an appointment at the UPMC Travel Health Program.

About Infectious Diseases

If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. Our team of experts is specially trained in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, including of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, illnesses caused by international travel, and more. We research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods. Visit our website to find an expert near you.