How To Avoid (And Deal With) 5 Common Travel Diseases

We have been in Thailand for 3 weeks now, and decided to update all the vaccinations we need at the Red Cross in Bangkok (thanks to JohnnyVagabond for the tip) While traveling the world, your body is introduced to many new bugs and bacterias, some of which are more dangerous than others – so today we are going to share 5 common travel diseases, what they are, how to avoid them.

Please remember, this post is not meant to scare you but remind you to take precautions so you can travel safe and happy.

1. Malaria

Malaria is a serious disease caused by parasites. It’s fatal if left untreated.

Malaria is transmitted by a bite from a malaria-infected female mosquito.

More than 100 countries are in the danger zones of Malaria (India, Central and South America, SE Asia, Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa).

Sometimes it can be difficult knowing how bad the malaria is in some places, and it differs between what every doctor says as well.

One doctor advised me to take malaria pills in Malaysia but not in Vanuatu, another said I didn’t need them for any of the countries, which can make it a tricky decision since the side effects of the pill are really horrible and you don’t want to take them when you don’t need them.

There are several different Anti-malarial drugs to prevent and treat Malaria. The choice of which drug to use depends on side effects, the malaria type and which drugs the parasite is resistant to in that area, so make sure that you get the appropriate drug for your situation and destination.

Malaria pills aren’t 100% effective, so to be extra safe, sleep under a mosquito net, use insect repellents (make sure it has DEET) and wear long pants and shirts in the evening or when walking in places with a lot of mosquitoes.

Side Effects:
The side effect of taking malaria pills can sometimes feel just as bad as having malaria, so my suggestion is to take the drugs ONLY if you really know that there will be malaria where you go.

#### NOTE: While at the Red Cross in Bangkok a few weeks ago, they told us that they don’t give out malaria pills anymore because of the side-effects etc. It seems like things are changing, and doctors don’t just randomly hand out pills as much anymore – best thing is to not take them, just be smart, use common sense, and take the right precautions when traveling in affected areas.) ####

2. Travelers Diarrhea

Travelers diarrhea is exactly what it sounds like – frequent diarrhea (NOT a Bali Belly or Delhi Belly).

A foreign bacteria or bug enters your system, most often from contaminated food and water.

Many travelers also get upset stomachs because of the sudden diet change. Spicy food often causes an irritated bowel and you get diarrhea. When this happens, stay hydrated and don’t eat any spicy food.

It can happen anywhere, but the risk is higher in developing countries in Africa, Middle East, Asia and Latin America.

Always drink bottled water, don’t even brush your teeth in tap water if it’s not drinkable, and keep your mouth closed when showering.
If you’re unsure whether the ice is from tap water or bottled water, don’t risk it but ask for no ice in your drink.

Stick to cooked food, especially make sure that the meat is well cooked.  Other food to be careful with is fruit (preferably peel it yourself) and seafood.

Always carry a disinfection gel around and wash your hands with it a few times a day, especially before eating and after having dealt with money.

If the damage is already done, then the best way to stop it is to have Imodium and Pepto-Bismol to stop it. If the diarrhea doesn’t go away and/or gets worse, seek a doctor. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and your doctor can give you advice on what to eat and the local remedies for diarrhea.

3. Cholera

Cholera is a severe bacterial disease affecting the intestines, creating vomiting and watery diarrhea.The disease is fatal if left untreated. It’s an extreme type of travel diarrhea.

The germ is spread by drinking contaminated water or infected food. The source of the contaminated water is often due to other cholera patients’ diarrhea let through into the waterways.

Remember that even shellfish living in affected waterways can cause this infection.

This disease can be found in Indonesia, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

There is a drinkable vaccine (Dukoral), two doses will keep you safe for two years (with the second dose taken a week after the first). Use the same precautions as for normal Travel Diarrhea.

4. Hepatitis A & B

Both Hepatitis A and B are viral infections of the liver, however Hepatitis B is transmitted differently and it takes longer to get well.

The most common transmission for hepatitis A is via contaminated food and water. The virus breaks down in the discharge and spread via contaminated water that people drink, as well as food that has been in contact with contaminated water.

Often you don’t notice that you’re infected because there are little to no symptoms and the symptoms can come a long time after you’ve been infected (Hepatitis A 2-6 weeks, Hepatitis B 2-6 months), but the symptoms can also make you feel sick for months. Typical symptoms are nausea, fever, malaise and abdominal problems.

Hepatitis B is transmitted via blood – blood transfusions or needles – and sex with an infected person.

Most common in less developed countries and regions with poor hygiene standards. Africa, Southern Asia and Latin America are common places, but it exists everywhere.

Vaccinations are 95-100% effective when taken at least 4 weeks prior to trip. A second vaccine (Havrix) boost 6-12 months later and then it lasts for the next 20+ years. There is a vaccination that covers for both hepatitis A and B called Twinrix.

This one has to be taken 3 times for 20 years of coverage: The second one 1 month after the first, and the third one 6 months after the first dose.

5. Typhoid Fever

A bacterial infection in the intestines, and sometimes the bloodstream.

It’s transmitted by contaminated food or water with salmonella. Typical symptoms are severe headache, nausea, massive loss of appetite and fever.

It exists everywhere but the risks are highest in poor countries in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, as well as in the Indian subcontinents and Mexico.

The vaccine is only between 50-80% safe so stay away from water that could be contaminated (like tap water) and uncooked food. Take the vaccine two weeks before travel.

Well, there you go – not the nicest article to read I know, but it is important to educate yourself on what is out there, so you are prepared while traveling.

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26 Responses to How To Avoid (And Deal With) 5 Common Travel Diseases

  1. - Unknown - December 26, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    Excellent article.

    I cannot stress enough about not brushing teeth with tap water. I knew to only drink bottled water but while in Lahore, I didn’t think while brushing my teeth with tap water and I was ill for 3 days.

    • Sofia December 27, 2010 at 12:26 pm #

      Yeah, same thing happened to me, for some reason I thought it was ok as long as you didn’t swallow but spat it out, but that doesn’t work.

  2. Tour Absurd December 26, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    Thanks for the article! Any recommendations on portable water filters?

    • Sofia December 28, 2010 at 2:33 pm #

      We have been talking for a long time about buying a water purifyer but been too lazy to actually do it, next time we get the chance we will though!

      We’re interested in two different ones: Steripen which seems fairly good and not too expensive, but the one which seems to be the ABSOLUTE BEST is The Life Saver.

      Check out the link here:


  3. Lynda December 26, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    I freak out about Malaria every time I go away, especially to the more tropic, humid areas you mentioned because I get eaten alive by mozzies! Great post!

    • Sofia December 28, 2010 at 4:02 am #

      Thanks Lynda!
      Yeah Nathan is the same, the mozzies love him. As well as spraying yourself, you can also spray the room, around the windows and under the doors, everywhere where they can get through.

  4. Lorna - the roamantics December 26, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    great post! we got our vaccinations done in 2002 at the red cross in thailand as well! we opted not to take anti-malarials as we were doing anthropological research, couldn’t risk the side-effects, and the area wasn’t a high-risk area. we used the DEET, mosquito net method you suggest. we did other vaccinations that were recommended by the thai red cross and were fine. i think you strike a great balance here of encouraging caution/prevention without scaring folks out of traveling abroad. really informative!

  5. Sarah Wu December 26, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

    wow a lot things to avoid. But thank you for sharing this. This is a great post to read before traveling

  6. Ayngelina December 26, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    I came back from overseas with an ulcer. No one knows why you get them but they suspect it was also due to bacteria. It was no big deal, I just took some meds and it went away.

  7. Jack and Jill Travel The World December 26, 2010 at 5:55 pm #

    Hmmm, haven’t had any diseases while traveling (other than the usual cold and fever), but I’m dreading the yellow fever vaccinations I’ll have to take sooner or later.

  8. Phil Paoletta December 26, 2010 at 4:40 pm #

    Great post, but I would like to point a few possible amendments.

    RE: malaria

    I too am on the fence about malaria, but it is hard not to recommend the prophylactics, side effects and all. I have had it twice – once in Benin, and more recently in Mali. Each time I took Coartem as treatment (highly recommend coartem as emergency stand by) and was better within 48 hours. That said, I was also taking prophylactics at the time (as you said none are 100% effective), and there is a good chance that they mitigated the effects. Without the prophylactics, the symptoms could have developed quicker and been much worse. I think the biggest worry in not recommending prophylactics is that you can possibly come down with P falciparum, which often turns into severe malaria. P falciparum is not so common outside Africa, but if you are making general travel recommendations, it should be part of the conversation.

    RE: traveler’s diarrhea

    The best treatment is frequent hydration with oral rehydration salts (or if not those, gatorade or a pinch of salt and sugar in your water). Imodium and Pepto-Bismol treat symptoms. Imodium in particular might make things worse. It slows down your gut so the offending bacteria has more time to do its damage. If you have a really bad bacterial situation, you should take ciprogloxacin, which is effectively an atomic bomb on your gut. It can be purchased at any pharmacy, only to be used when diarrhea is not getting better after a few days. If there is blood in the diarrhea, then obviously you need a different set of drugs. After getting amoebic dysentery on this last trip, I now carry metronidazole and albendazole at all times, in addition to cipro. Metronidazole is a powerful antimicrobial and albendazole will kill just about any worm.

    I don’t want to be the asshole that seems out to discredit your post, I just want to supplement it a bit.

    B well,

    • Sofia December 28, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

      Hey Phil,
      thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.
      What a bummer getting it twice!

      I would definitely recommend Prophylatics in areas where the Malaria risks are high!

      But if you for example are traveling to Malaysia and know that you will be spending most of your time in cities and very little time in rural areas, Prophylatics might not be very necessary for you, as you won’t be in risky areas.

      This is my opinion, but of course you should always consult a doctor.

      Never heard of Metronidazole, thanks for sharing!

  9. Phil Paoletta December 26, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    Oh and worst disease I’ve dealt with? The amoebic dysentery I mentioned, exacerbated greatly by the circumstances I was in. If you care to read:

    b well, Phil

  10. JB December 27, 2010 at 1:57 am #

    I was just recently in Cuzco and a couple staying at the same hostel got typhoid, most likely from the food they ate on the Inca trail. That’s as touristy as it gets I suppose but illustrates the need to be ever vigilant when traveling.

  11. Laurence December 27, 2010 at 1:11 am #

    Really handy post! I always seem to leave this stuff to the last minute, and then get tutted at a lot by people wielding sharp needles…

  12. Felicia Moursalien December 27, 2010 at 4:09 am #

    I went through a spell of having traveler’s dia, what I not so fondly came to call ‘Chocolate rain,’ every trip I went on, even in Europe. Here are some useful tips that I had to learn the hard way. How to Survive Traveler’s Diarrhea

  13. Dena Haines December 27, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    This is a really good post! Being extra careful with water is so important, we live in Cuenca Ecuador, and like you we brushed our teeth with the tap water and ended up getting amoebas, not fun. It takes some getting used to, but it’s so worth it to use bottled water!

    • Sofia December 28, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

      Thanks Dena,
      yikes, amoebas does NOT sound fun..! Brushing your teeth seems like such a small thing, but it can have nasty consequences.

      Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts.

  14. Shawna O'Flaherty December 27, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    Dukoral, the cholera vaccine, also offers protection against certain common strains of traveller’s diarrhea caused by the e-coli bacteria. However, there are lots of nasties you can catch while travelling, and Dukoral won’t protect against all of them. I got a nasty case of giardia while diving in Iceland. It was pretty embarrassing explaining how I got it to the physician. And like Phil said, Immodium is a bad idea. It tends to make whatever parasite or bacteria you’ve caught much worse, as the symptoms can’t work their way out.

    • Sofia December 28, 2010 at 2:25 pm #

      Hi Shawna!
      You’re totally right, Dukoral doesn’t protect you against all of them, so always be careful!

      There is a lot of contradictions about Immodium, many say that it keeps the bugs in the system, while many others claim that this isn’t the case at all.

      I’ve been on both sides and tried both things.
      I do believe that you shouldn’t take it the first thing you do,
      but if you’re in a really bad condition, you need to block yourself up otherwise it can get even worse because of dehydration.

  15. Adventurous Kate December 27, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    Don’t tell my family, but I’ve never taken antimalarials, and I’ve been bitten in affected areas in southern Laos and southern Cambodia. :-/ And not because I’m against them — because I’m a lazy mofo who waited too long.

    I’ll feel better once I’m back in Bangkok, the land of awesome hospitals. Just in case.

  16. Sofia December 28, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    Hey Felicia, funny nickname, makes it a little easier to talk about haha.

    Thanks for sharing your post.

  17. Andrea and John December 28, 2010 at 9:47 am #

    Very helpful post! We try to prevent illness because it’s better not to get sick in the first place, but it’s really great to know what to do should you become ill with one of these diseases.

  18. enrolled agent cpe December 31, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    These diseases might sound pretty alarming but what’s important is to not take your condition for granted. Once you feel something weird do not wait for days, it is best to immediately go to the hospital especially if you are in a foreign land.

  19. Alicia January 13, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Getting sick while you are in a travel is very disappointing… it will indeed ruin the entire trip that you have planned for a very long long period of time. And one thing more is that it is really a pain in the pocket to get ill during a travel. This is where travel insurance gets in.

  20. Hubert Jarema May 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    Great article! Tweeted it! @senacare:twitter