This Disease Specialist Wants You to Add One More Thing to Your Pre-Travel To-Do List: Visit a Doctor

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Prepping for a trip abroad is no small feat. Even after you’ve got the flight and accommodations booked, there are a ton of other things to consider. What’s the best (and cheapest) way to get around? Do you need to alert your credit card company that you’re traveling? Oh yeah, and then there’s the packing!

See what I mean? Traveling out of the country requires a lot of work and plenty of forethought. But according to Dr. William Schaffner, a preventative medicine expert and infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, there’s likely something else you should be doing in your pre-trip frenzy: Scheduling a visit to your doctor.

Why You Should Go to the Doctor One Month Before a Big Trip Abroad

“[You should always] visit your doctor at least a month before your trip to have your immunizations checked,” explains Dr. Schaffner. “Yes, even if you’re going to Europe or other developed countries.”

Case in point: Do you remember the last time you got a tetanus shot? Me either. But medical experts recommend getting one every 10 years, according to the Mayo Clinic, and it’s all too easy for most of us to lose track, especially if we haven’t had a check-up in a few years. In that case, an accident during your trip could prove life-threatening.

Another biggie? Have your measles status reviewed, says Dr. Schaffner, and don’t assume that just because you got the MMR vaccine as a kid, you’re totally in the clear.

“There are outbreaks of measles in Europe, Israel, the Philippines, etc.,” he reminds us. (Not to mention right here in the U.S.) In fact, earlier this year, a 43-year-old flight attendant fatally contracted measles shortly after traveling home to Israel on a flight from New York’s JFK Airport. Doctors later determined that the single dosage of the measles vaccine she’d been given as a child—common practice during the 1970s—wasn’t powerful enough. Today, the standard is two dosages.

Having up-to-date immunizations becomes “even more important if your travels take you to the developing world, where further vaccines are either required or advised,” Dr. Schaffner continues.

But the truth of the matter is, even your own doctor might not be totally brushed up on all of this stuff.  “In all candor, not every family physician or internist is up-to-date in such rather specialized and exotic matters,” he says, “so you might check whether there is a traveler’s clinic in your vicinity.” They’ll be fully equipped to deal with things like malaria (if you’re visiting a tropical locale) and will have the latest recommendations on which medicines to take.

Credit: Erin Little

4 More Things You Can Do to Stay Healthy While Traveling

Wondering what else you can do to steer clear of illness and disease while traveling abroad? According to Dr. Schaffner there’s a lot.

1. Maintain your normal wellness habits.

Drinking plenty of water (and being mindful of your alcohol consumption) is a pretty good lesson to live by anywhere at any time, but when it comes to traveling, staying hydrated could help you avoid constipation, diarrhea, and just overall funkiness. Dr. Schaffner also notes that staying hydrated will help you better adjust to your new time zone, which might help save you that first wasted day of pure exhaustion.

Packing some antibacterial wipes and washing your hands frequently is a good idea, too, says Dr. Schaffner, but you don’t need to go overboard. “You have to find your own comfort level,” he says, warning that “you don’t want to be obsessed with antibacterial wipes to the point that you won’t have any fun.” Ah yes, fun! That’s why you’re going on vacation in the first place, right?

2. Watch what you eat (and drink!) when you’re abroad.

When it comes to food and drinking water, you do want to be mindful—especially in countries within the developing world, which includes common travel destinations like Costa Rica, Jamaica, Croatia, and the Dominican Republic.

“The rule is, ‘Don’t eat it unless it is cooked or peeled,’” says Dr. Schaffner, adding that, “Yes, that means NO salads.” If that just gave you pause, not to worry: me too. But Dr. Schaffner swears by this tip. “As my mentor (an expert on travel medicine) liked to admonish, ‘The only way to disinfect salad is with a blowtorch,’” he continues.

“Do not drink the water unless it comes from a bottle that you have opened,”Dr. Schaffner adds, for those who are traveling in the developing world. “If you really are careful, you’ll use bottled water to brush your teeth.” While bottled water brushings aren’t easy, they’ll really save you later if you’re prone to traveler’s diarrhea. Same goes for skipping the ice cubes in your drinks—a difficult, but effective, method of preventing tummy issues.

Credit: BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock

3. Steer clear of stray animals

If you’re traveling to a region where stray dogs are common, I’m sorry to say you may want to think twice before you pet the four-legged furbaby. “Stay away from dogs,” Dr. Schaffner says, “Rabies is common around the world and US citizens have been bitten abroad and have come home with the disease.”

If you’re planning to travel to a country where this might be an issue, he says to consider getting a pre-exposure series of rabies shots to be on the safe side.

4. Practice safe sex, just like at home.

Sometimes, as Dr. Schaffner says, people forget that what happens abroad, doesn’t always stay abroad. At least when we’re talking about STDs.

“If you think you might do some sexual tourism, please take care,” Dr. Schaffner urges, reminding travelers to make sure they’re fully vaccinated against hepatitis B and to take condoms with you, no matter your gender.

“HIV (the AIDS virus) is out there,” he continues, so “if you think you might be ‘putting it about’ (as the British say), ask your doctor about HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis. HIV definitely is a virus you do not want to bring back home with you.”

The bottom line? No two travelers are alike, just like no two trips abroad are ever really the same. Whatever you do, research your travel destination extensively, ask friends and family for advice if they’ve ever been themselves, and schedule that doctor’s appointment right away—you’ll thank yourself later (even if it winds up just being for peace of mind).

And here’s Dr. Schaffner’s last bit of advice: Bon voyage!

“Have fun and see the world,” he says. “It is exciting, educational, full of nice people, and great food!”