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Staying Healthy While You Travel


When your family travels, being away from your household's usual eating and sleeping routines means it's more likely that someone might get sick. It can take time to adjust to the food, water, and air in a new environment. And kids can be especially vulnerable to travel-related problems such as motion sickness, diarrhea, and infections.

But some early planning and smart packing can help you keep the trip healthy for everybody. Here are some things to keep in mind when your family prepares to travel.

Special Considerations for Travel Abroad

If you're heading overseas, start preparing well in advance. For instance, it's important to find out what vaccinations your kids (and even you) might need because:

Most immunizations should be given at least 1 month before travel, so try to schedule a doctor's visit 4-6 weeks before your trip. Even if you're leaving in less than 4 weeks, you should still make an appointment, as kids might still benefit from shots or medications.

Depending on your travel plans, your doctor may recommend that in addition to routine immunizations, you and/or your child be vaccinated against:

Although all kids get the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine at 12-15 months of age, any who will travel outside the United States before that should get the vaccine as early as 6 months of age.

Also, kids of any age can get malaria so if you're traveling to a country with a malaria risk, talk to your doctor about antimalarial drugs. The doctor will decide the best preventative medication based on your destination and your child's health status.

Ask your doctor or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website for a list of recommended or required vaccinations (the site includes a section devoted to travelers' health that you can search by destination), and be sure to take your child's immunization records with you if you're traveling internationally.

Common Travel Troubles

No matter how far you're traveling, there are some health issues that your family is likely to face, including jet lag, ear discomfort, travel (or motion) sickness, and diarrhea.

Jet Lag

When you fly across time zones, it can take time for your internal body clock to catch up with the local time. For example, if your regular bedtime is 9 p.m. and you travel from New York to California, where the time is 3 hours earlier, you may be ready for bed when it is 6 p.m. in California because you've already been up for the usual amount of time and your body is ready to rest. Chances are you'll probably not go to sleep until the local time is 9 p.m., and then you'll be extra tired because your body has been awake for longer than usual.

In addition to tiredness, jet lag can also cause an upset stomach and even insomnia. Here are some tips for dealing with jet lag:

Ear Pain

It's common for kids to experience ear discomfort during a plane's takeoff and descent caused by pressure in the middle ear as it tries to keep up with the rapidly changing air pressure. Encourage kids to swallow, yawn, or, if they're old enough, chew gum. It may help infants to nurse or suck on a bottle.

All of these things can help kids' ears adjust. You may also want to give your child a pain reliever, such as acetaminophen, 30-60 minutes before takeoff or, if it's a long flight, before landing.

Motion Sickness

Travel (or motion) sickness is caused by a conflict between the eye and ear: The inner ears detect movement, but the eyes — focused within a car or other vehicle — do not. These mixed signals coming into the brain can cause nausea, dizziness, vomiting, paleness, and cold sweats.

Motion sickness often happens on ships and boats, but it also can affect kids when they travel in planes, buses, and cars. Some ways to help combat travel sickness:

Diarrhea

Diarrhea and other stomach problems can be common during travel. Often, they're caused by bacteria or other germs entering the digestive tract, usually from contaminated food or water. Diarrhea is especially a problem for young kids and babies, who can become dehydrated more quickly than adults.

Water in many developing countries isn't treated in the same way as water supplies in developed nations and may contain bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Take precautions to ensure the water is safe:

Other ways to prevent diarrhea and GI distress:

Be Prepared

When you pack, include any medicines and other medical supplies you and your family use regularly because they may be hard to find at your destination. Don't forget inhalers, allergy medication, and insulin, if needed.

Other items you might want to pack:

Do some research before your trip to find the hospital or medical care facility closest to your destination, particularly if your child has a chronic health condition. If you're traveling overseas, try to find one where English is spoken.

It's also wise to carry a written copy of your child's medical history. Having this available can help health care workers make appropriate decisions about how to treat your child and you won't have to worry about forgetting important information at a time when you're likely to be upset.

A medical history should include:

And Don't Forget . . .

While you're away, it's important to take the same health and safety precautions as you do at home. These include:

Before you leave, consider asking your doctor for other information about how to protect your family from illness and injury during travel. This advance planning can help make sure that when the time comes, all you'll have left to do is relax and enjoy your vacation!

Reviewed by: Shayan T. Vyas, MD
Date reviewed: May 2015


Note: All information on KidsHealth® is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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