Travel Health and Safety
Staying healthy on your gap year is more important than anything else. All those amazing temples, beaches and adventures won’t mean a thing if you’re cooped up in bed feeling grim. More often than not the key to good health while travelling is having the right mind-set and getting into good habits. These could include putting up a mosquito net before sleeping, not drinking tap water and being wary of certain types of food, though what precautions you need to take will vary dramatically from place to place.
In this section we’ll give you some top advice on how to stay safe and healthy on your travels, and provide links to in-depth articles on specific topics, such as sexual health and malaria.
Travel health precautions
We highly recommend you visit your GP or nearest travel clinic at least eight weeks before you are due to leave as some vaccinations need to be administered quite far in advance.
We know that this is your year out and that you probably want to be as spontaneous as possible, but having a general idea of the areas of the world you’ll be visiting and the kinds of things you’ll be doing is very important in helping your travel health preparation.
The kinds of vaccinations you’ll need (if any) will depend on a number of factors, including but not limited to:
- What countries you are visiting (including specific areas)
- When you are visiting (some diseases are more prevalent during certain seasons)
- The manner in which you are travelling (backpackers, for example, are often more at risk than those on package holidays)
- The kinds of things you'll be doing (if you're going to be working with animals, for example, there could be a greater risk of contracting rabies)
Someone in the medical profession will be able to advise on individual situations but for some preliminary research check out Fit for Travel (powered by the NHS) and in particular the Interactive Map. Also have a look at our article about immunisations and medication before you travel.
Some vaccinations are free on the NHS (such as polio, typhoid, hepatitis A and cholera) but for others, including yellow fever, antimalarials, hepatitis B and tuberculosis, there is a charge, usually about £50 for each. It is worth noting that vaccinations are not compulsory; it is ultimately up to you and your doctor to assess the level of risk.
What kit to pack
There are a few items you can bring with you to further protect yourself against nasties on the road, just as some added precautions for emergencies.
Some of these include:
- Mosquito net and insect repellent (ideally containing 50% DEET)
- A basic medical kit containing things like plasters, bandages, antiseptic wipes, Imodium, rehydration salts and painkillers
- Contraceptives - i.e. condoms
- Sun cream and after sun lotion
For a more detailed rundown on this check out the medical kit section on our essential packing list.
We cannot emphsise enough the importance of getting travel insurance before you leave home!
Travel insurance can cover you for numerous things, such as cancelled flights, lost luggage and stolen passports, but the most important by a long shot is your health.
The cost of medical treatment abroad without insurance is extremely high – we’re talking thousands of pounds, even for relatively minor injuries. If you have to get airlifted from somewhere, make that tens of thousands. If, God forbid, you die, your family will be faced with trying to get your body home. Again, this can cost thousands and thousands of pounds without proper insurance.
Check out our dedicated page about travel insurance on your gap year for more information.
Water and food
In developing nations, such as those found in Asia, Africa or South America, you should be very cautious not to ingest tap water that hasn’t been boiled or sterilised with something like iodine. This goes beyond avoiding literally drinking out the tap: you should avoid drinks with ice cubes, foods which could have been washed with tap water, like salad, and even ice cream. The tap water of some countries is more dangerous than others; in India, for example, you are strongly advised to not even use tap water to brush your teeth, and to keep your mouth firmly shut in the shower.
Try to eat the freshest food possible at all times. Sometimes there is just no way of knowing if food is contaminated, but as a rule of thumb make sure it is always piping hot, avoid food which could have been lying around for ages and stay away from seafood wherever possible.
It is almost inevitable that at some point in your trip you’ll suffer from travellers’ diarrhoea; it’s practically a rite of passage, so to speak. Mostly it will clear up by itself within 72 hours; if it persists beyond that time frame it might be wise to see a doctor.
The best way to combat it is to remain hydrated, ideally with rehydration solutions which contain valuable salts and nutrients. You’d be amazed at the amount of water you lose when you have the squits. Over-the-counter medicines like Imodium can be handy for plugging you up if you have to take a long bus journey, but keep in mind they only attack the symptoms, not the cause, and can actually make the infection worse. Only use as an emergency.
Animals and insects
In some countries, particularly in the tropics and in developing nations, animals and insects can pose a serious threat to travellers, particular in the way of rabies from stray cats and dogs, and malaria from mosquitoes. The best way to avoid rabies is to simply never approach a cat or dog; leave them be and they’ll do the same. With mosquitoes, avoidance is the best tactic. There are no vaccinations against malaria and even antimalarials are not a guarantee, they simply reduce your chances of contracting it. Cover up exposed skin wherever possible, particularly in the evening, apply good repellent to exposed skin and clothing and sleep under a mosquito net.
You know the drill, you’ve heard it enough times at school: use contraception! Gents, always make sure you always have a condom about your person, and ladies, don’t let him do anything without one. It’s not all about avoiding pregnancy: you don’t want to be returning home with unexpected souvenirs – AIDS, for example – because that can put a real dampener on things.
Drugs & alcohol
Just don’t be silly. Please.
There will be many, many occasions on your gap year when you find yourself getting a few drinks down you – just try to have some self-control. With drugs, obviously we condone taking any illegal substances, but it goes without saying that there are varying levels of severity. Smoking a joint on a beach, for example, is a different league to taking LSD before white water rafting. Just use your common sense. Please.
For a more in depth look at all of the above check out our article about staying healthy on your travels, written by a qualified doctor no less!
Our advice is no substitute for visiting your doctor. All the best general practitioner (GP) surgeries run travel health clinics with advice and information directly from medics, and you really must contact your local clinic and make an appointment.
We would advise that three to six months before your trip you:
- Visit your GP for a general health check-up in preparation for going overseas, especially if you are considering a long trip
- Ask any questions relating to your trip. What vaccinations do you need and how much will they cost? What are the side effects of anti-malaria tablets? How long do you need to take them before you go? What contraception you should use while travelling?
- Book appointments to have any vaccinations you need administered well before you leave
- Prepare a comprehensive first-aid kit
There is no combination more ideal for meeting a new partner; sun, beach, cheap alcohol and nothing else to worry about. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) are on the rise, not just amongst young people back home, but even more so amongst young travellers. Just make sure you know how to stay safe on your travels...
This guide was written by travel health expert Doctor Seb Kalwij and covers the basic issues that you should know about before you travel. Dr Seb Kalwij is one of gapyear.com's travel health experts. He's been involved with travel health projects all over the World, and is now a GP in London.
However, this section is no substitute for a visit to your own doc. Your local GP should run a travel clinic. We suggest that you contact him / her to find out when it is.
Particularly prevalent amongst travellers who have been on the road for years on end. Symptoms include: the sufferer making wildly improbable claims about where they have been, what they have seen, and how much they have spent. While not communicable, if someone starts telling you that they travelled on 53 cents a day by sleeping on park benches and recycling their own urine, you should give them a wide berth - if only for your own sanity.