Travel Health Tips for Your Gap Year

The last thing you want to happen when travelling is to be unwell. Your travels can be some of the best experiences in your life; don't risk ruining them by not protecting yourself. There are always some travel health tips to help you.

Think about vaccinations that you may need to travel to certain regions; if you're heading to Asia then hepatitis A and typhoid vaccinations are essential. Yellow fever is a significant problem in Central and Southern America and parts of Africa. Discuss the various available vaccinations with your doctor or travel health clinic.

Make sure you're protected on your gap year

Malaria

Malaria is another disease that you have to take into account when planning a gap year trip or adventure. It's a parasite spread by mosquitos. A single bite is enough to infect you, and it can be deadly.

The plasmodium parasites responsible for causing malaria are injected into the blood stream when a mosquito carrying them bites the skin. From there the parasites travel to the liver where they multiply before spreading out into the blood vessels where they invade red blood cells. Every so often a red blood cell will burst releasing more parasites and a cloud of toxins into the bloodstream. It's when these infected blood cells burst that the person infected will feel the symptoms of malaria; a high fever and bouts of chills and sweating.

Malaria kills by destroying too many red blood cells, inhibiting the body's ability to transport oxygen to vital organs, which eventually leads to organ failure. Or, in rare cases, the disease can cause the small blood vessels in the brain to become blocked, resulting in strokes, seizures, brain damage and death.

Every year between one and two thousand people are diagnosed with malaria in British hospitals after returning from foreign travels, and every year some of those people die.

Even a relatively mild case of malaria which doesn't kill you, it has the potential to ruin your trip, leaving you weak, ill and bed bound for a long time.

Theoretically, wherever you find mosquitos there is a risk of malaria, but in reality you're only really in danger in tropical areas where the species of mosquito that carry the parasites are prevalent; Latin America, Africa, and areas of southern Asia. Be aware of the risk level in the region you're travelling in.

If you're planning on visiting a danger zone be sure to consider the available anti-malaria drugs. They're tablets that can be prescribed by a doctor, to be taken before, during and after your visit to a danger zone.

It's also essential to take other measures to protect yourself in these regions. You should use insect repellent on any exposed areas of skin, and sleep under a chemically treated mosquito net (without any holes in it!).

Malaria is one of the most misunderstood tropical diseases

The Myths of Malaria

Malaria is one of the most misunderstood tropical diseases due to the many myths surrounding it. For example, many people will tell you that you'll know if you've been bitten by a mosquito carrying malaria due to the size or colour of the bite area, or because it's itchier than a normal bite - this is wrong!

You can't tell from the bite whether the mosquito has malaria or not. On top of this, different people react differently to any mosquito bite. Even if you're bitten by a non-infected mosquito, the redness and swelling sometimes doesn't show up until two days later. Some malaria patients show symptoms almost straight away, while others may not notice anything until months later when they are back at home. 

Another popular myth is that taking vitamin B supplements prevents malaria - wrong again!

Vitamin B has no power to protect against malaria. Some people believe it can be a way of deterring mosquitos, but this is unconfirmed. If you're tempted to experiment with using Marmite, a rich source of vitamin B, as an anti-insect skin lotion, you should at least do so while using tried-and-tested methods of prevention. For example, using an insecticide treated mosquito net and taking a course of malaria tablets will hugely increase your chances of avoiding the disease.

Many people are under the impression that you're only at risk of catching malaria during the wet season in tropical countries when mosquitos are swarming - wrong!

Mosquitos may enjoy wet seasons more, but the insects can be found in both wet and dry seasons in countries where malaria is present. So it's the safest option to (you guessed it) take a course of malaria tablets. Whether it's wet or dry, it's also a great idea to wear a long sleeved shirt and trousers, particularly at night.

Finally, and this is a myth that a vast number of people mistakenly believe, people say that being born or raised in a country or area that's a malaria danger zone, or previously having malaria, makes you immune to the disease. Once again - wrong!

Even if you come from a country with malaria (and even if you have previously had malaria) you're just as at risk of contracting the disease as a virgin traveller stepping into a malaria zone for the first time.

One final point about malaria; it's a disease that lingers in the body, so if you notice any malaria-like symptoms, such as a headache, fever, muscle pains, sweats, chills or vomiting, at any time up to a year after you return from your trip, you should seek immediate medical attention, and be sure to inform your doctor that you've been out of the country.

When travelling it's a good idea to take a basic first aid kit and pack some paracetamol, ibuprofen, cold / flu tablets, something to stop diarrhoea (you'll be grateful - trust me) and pills to tackle constipation. Your doctor will be able to advise you as to what you will need and other health risks for the places you visit.

Many illnesses are spread by contaminated drinking water so always drink bottled water and beware of fresh seafood or salads that may have been washed in tap water.

Speaking as someone who's done my fair share of travelling, at some point you will almost certainly find yourself in a situation where you're glad that you thought to pack a variety of medicines!


Further Information

If you're looking for some other travel health tips then head on over to our travel health artices and advice section - it's got everything covered from what to do in hospital overseas to sexual health on your gap year.

And if we don't have it covered in our travel health section then jump onto the messageboards and ask the question!


About the Author: James Armstrong

James Armstrong

I'm an experienced journalist and radio broadcaster currently writing for the online doctoring service Dr Thom.

My travels over the last decade have taken me through Europe and occasionally across the Mediterranean, even as far as Japan and Australia.

But the continent I've fallen in love with is North America. From snowboarding in Canadian mountains to Gambling in Las Vegas, I've crisscrossed the USA and Canada, and feel like there's still so much more to discover!

My favourite city in the world is San Francisco, and when I've seen all I want to see of the rest of the world, I hope to settle there! But until then I'll keep exploring!