What is Travel Medicine and How Can You Be Prepared to Travel?

General Health and Preventive Care  /  Blog

What is Travel Medicine and How Can You Be Prepared to Travel?

Sofie Wise

Written by Sofie Wise

Sofie Wise

Sofie Wise

Sofie hopes to create a more sustainable healthcare system by empowering people to make conscious health decisions. Her interests include cooking, reading, being outdoors and painting.

June 18, 2018 / Read Time 9 minutes

If you’re planning to take a trip abroad, you may have heard about travel medicine or been referred to a travel clinic. Or maybe you haven’t heard of travel medicine and were intrigued by the title of this article. Either way, you probably have questions.

What is travel medicine, anyway? Do you really need to go to a travel clinic instead of your general practitioner? What does a travel clinic offer that other doctors don’t? Read on for the answers to these questions and more.

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What is travel medicine?

According to Medicine Net, travel medicine is “a branch of medicine that specializes in diseases and conditions that are acquired during travel.”

Different parts of the world are prone to diseases that may not be endemic to the place you live, so certain vaccinations or preventative medications are often recommended to keep you safe when you travel to other countries.

Health professionals at a travel clinic will ask you about your planned itinerary and can inform you about potential disease and injury risks as well as recommend immunizations, preventive medications, and other general safety measures you should take to stay safe during your travels.

Examples of some conditions that travel medicine aims to prevent or minimize symptoms of include:

  • Malaria is a common illness in many tropical parts of the world. It is responsible for the death of nearly half a million people per year. The mainland United States is not tropical enough to suffer from many cases of malaria, but 1,700 people in the United States are diagnosed with malaria every year. Most of those cases are people who have recently traveled to places where malaria is common, such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Malaria is caused by mosquito bites. After an infected mosquito bites the skin, protozoa enter the person’s bloodstream and infect the person. This means that mosquito protection is a crucial deterrent in areas where malaria is a problem. Travel clinics often prescribe people traveling to the tropics antimalarial drugs to take before, during, and after a trip to avoid becoming infected with the deadly disease.

  • Traveler’s diarrhea is another common problem for people from developed countries who travel to areas with different sanitation requirements. Up to half of all people who travel to a developing country will suffer from a case of traveler’s diarrhea. Symptoms can last from one to five days and may be accompanied by mild to moderate abdominal cramping, dehydration, vomiting, and a low fever. Symptoms can be severe enough to disrupt your travel plans, so speaking to a travel medicine specialist before your trip can help you avoid or minimize a crippling case of diarrhea.

If diarrhea is accompanied by bloody stool, severe abdominal pain, or a high fever, something much worse than traveler’s diarrhea may be the culprit, and you should consult a doctor immediately.

You may have heard it referred to as “Montezuma’s revenge,” “Delhi belly,” or something else because traveler’s diarrhea is caused by consuming foods or liquids that contain different pathogens that your system isn’t used to. It can ruin a vacation quickly if you let it, so be sure to take preventive measures.

Areas that are more likely to cause traveler’s diarrhea include most of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America, especially if you enjoy street food or wander away from common tourist areas.

Advice from a travel clinic can help you avoid digestive problems, or at least be prepared with the medications you’ll need to recover and enjoy the rest of your trip. An antibiotic may be prescribed before your trip, and if you take it with an anti-diarrheal at the first sign of symptoms, you may recover within a few hours rather than a few days.

Occasionally, a doctor might prescribe daily antibiotics or daily bismuth subsalicylate during the entirety of a trip to prevent diarrhea, but this is typically reserved for people who are immunocompromised.

  • Meningitis and encephalitis are two diseases that occur in low rates around most of the world but may occur at much higher rates in certain areas. They are both fatal, so getting advice and proper immunizations from a travel medicine specialist is advised.

  • Yellow fever occurs in areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and South America. There is an effective vaccine, but it isn’t recommended for infants, pregnant women, the elderly, or those with chronic health conditions or are immunocompromised.

While the vaccination is recommended for anybody traveling to an area that is susceptible to yellow fever, some countries require individuals to be vaccinated before being allowed access to the country.

  • Hepatitis A is caused by a virus that attacks your liver. It occurs when you ingest fecal matter. This sounds difficult, but the disease can actually be very easily transmitted. Improper hand washing before food preparation or shaking hands with someone who did not wash their hands after using the bathroom can both lead to Hepatitis A. There is a vaccination that is very effective, although it does require some booster shots after the initial dose. It is also advised that you wash your hands regularly to avoid any preventable ingestion.

  • Typhoid fever is another infection caused by improper sanitation practices. Frequent hand washing and being careful about what you eat and drink can help prevent typhoid fever, but a vaccination is also available to help make sure that you stay safe.

  • Polio is rare in most of the world, but some areas are still suffering from epidemics of polio, which can cause weakness and paralysis of muscles, including those required for breathing. The polio vaccine is recommended for people traveling to areas where it is still a problem.

  • Cholera is caused by improper sanitation and can cause life-threatening watery diarrhea. There is no vaccination available in the United States, but most travelers are not under threat. The two exceptions to this are when you are visiting an area that has been hit by a natural disaster or you are providing aid in an area that has very poor sanitation. In that case, be cognizant of your symptoms and seek treatment immediately if you believe you have been infected with Cholera.

How does travel medicine differ from tropical medicine?

Travel medicine grew out of a subset of tropical medicine and is more comprehensive. While tropical medicine covers diseases that may be acquired in a tropical climate, travel medicine accounts for those diseases as well as chronic diseases that a person may already have. Dealing with chronic illness while in transit can be difficult, and travel medicine is here to make that a bit easier. Travel medicine dispenses more than just vaccinations; it dispenses advice and chronic prescriptions as well.

Why should I go to a travel clinic instead of my general practitioner?

While your regular doctor may have a vague idea about what diseases you may encounter when you travel, healthcare professionals at travel clinics are specifically educated on various problems you may encounter around the world, and these topics aren’t even necessarily all related to just medical concerns. Travel medicine can also include things like how to prevent mosquito bites and pickpockets while staying safe and avoiding injuries.

If you’re a healthy adult traveling to a place with a similar environment to your home country, for instance, an American traveling to Europe, you probably don’t need to worry about travel medicine. If you’re going somewhere tropical or if you have any chronic health conditions, a trip to a travel clinic could provide life-saving recommendations that your general practitioner may not be aware of.

Do I really need to go to a travel clinic before my trip?

A healthy adult traveling to a country that isn’t known for having diseases different from the ones your body is already accustomed to probably doesn’t need to go to a travel clinic. Anybody with a chronic health condition, children, or plans to go to a tropical location should go to a travel clinic for specific recommendations. You should go to a travel clinic if:

  • You’re visiting a developing country

  • You’re going somewhere other than the typical tourist locations in a country

  • You’re traveling to a high altitude

  • You have a chronic disease that could be affected by travel

  • You’re visiting a country that requires certain vaccinations before allowing you in

When should I visit a travel clinic?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you visit a travel clinic 4-6 weeks before your planned trip. This allows you plenty of time to get caught up on any necessary immunizations, as some may require a series of booster shots.

Other reasons to visit the travel clinic in advance are because some drugs that help prevent malaria must be started at least two weeks before traveling to the affected area and because you want to ensure that you have time to gather all necessary medical records before you leave.

  1. 1

    Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  2. 2

    See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  3. 3

    Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.

What can I expect during a visit to a travel clinic?

Healthcare professionals at a travel clinic will ask you a wide variety of questions so that they can provide you with the best recommendations for your travel. Some of the questions you may be asked by the staff at the travel clinic include:

  • Where are you traveling? Include every country and even cities within the countries since certain areas of a country may have different health concerns.

  • How long is your trip?

  • What types of activities do you have planned?

  • Questions about your age, overall health, vaccination status, and whether or not you’re pregnant or could become pregnant before your trip.

  • Are you taking a direct flight, or do you have layovers in other countries? Some countries require an International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, even if you’re only passing through on a layover.

  • Will you be leaving the airport during layovers?

  • What are entry requirements for each country on your trip? Beyond just a visa, some countries may require things like a yellow fever vaccination certificate or proof of a meningitis vaccination.

  • Are there any health advisories in effect for any location on your trip? Outbreaks around the world are constantly changing, and a disease that wasn’t a concern last month may now be an epidemic in the place you plan on visiting.

  • Do you know how to avoid pickpockets and prevent other petty crimes when you travel? What are safety concerns specific to each location on your itinerary?

  • What is the purpose of your trip? Business travelers may be at lower risk than backpackers, for example.

  • What are your lodging and sleeping arrangements? For example, camping out in the open may provide different health concerns than staying in a hotel.

  • What are your eating and drinking plans? Eating street food will expose you to different pathogens than sticking with bottled water and only eating at fine dining establishments.

  • Are you traveling with children? Children are more susceptible to many diseases and are more likely to die if they do become infected with a pathogen their body has never encountered.

  • What are the dates of your trip? Some diseases have seasonal flare-ups.

  • Do you have travel insurance?

Based on your answers to these questions, the travel medicine specialist may make recommendations about things like:

Vaccinations for:

  • Anthrax

  • Hepatitis A

  • Hepatitis B

  • Influenza

  • Japanese Encephalitis

  • MMR

  • Meningitis

  • Pneumonia

  • Polio

  • Rabies

  • Shingles

  • Tetanus/Diphtheria/Pertussis

  • Typhoid

  • Varicella

  • Yellow Fever

Medications to treat or prevent things like:

  • Traveler’s diarrhea

  • Malaria

  • Altitude sickness

  • Tuberculosis

Other important travel supplies, such as:

  • First aid kit

  • Mosquito protection (whether it’s insect repellant, mosquito netting, or something to apply to mosquito bites to relieve itching)

  • Sunscreen

  • Water filtration kits

  • Plug adaptors

  • Money holders

  • Compression socks to prevent blood clots during long flights

Advice such as:

  • Precautions regarding foods, beverages, weather, insect bites, and personal hygiene

  • Special recommendations for those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes and kidney disease

How do I find a travel clinic?

There are several different ways to find travel clinics near you.

The CDC has a website directory with phone numbers and locations for local or county health departments. If the county health department doesn’t offer a travel clinic, they can usually point you in the right direction for the resources you need.

The International Society of Travel Medicine Online Clinic Directory and the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) offer online resources to help you find private travel clinics in your area.

The online Yellow Fever Vaccination Clinics registry lists registered providers near you who offer the yellow fever vaccination. These registered providers may or may not also offer other travel medicine services, so call ahead if you need more than just a yellow fever vaccination. On the flip side, providers need to be specially registered to administer the yellow fever vaccination, and not all travel clinics may be prepared to administer this immunization.

Looking for travel medicine advice or services? You can also see an online doctor, who can prescribe you all of the necessary medications and vaccinations from the comfort of your home. PlushCare doctors are all highly trained in travel medicine procedure and are available to help today.

To learn more about our travel medicine services, book an appointment today.

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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