Backpacking is one of the best ways to travel. Unlike a standard holiday, backpacking can challenge you, teach you new skills and get you integrating into your surroundings more. Many backpackers tend to “go native” on their travels – dressing like locals, eating like locals and adopting local customs. But if you’re heading off into the world of cheap hostels, food stalls and long train journeys, you can certainly expect to fall ill at least once on your journey. Fortunately, there are things you can do to stop yourself from catching nasty diseases while you travel. The following tips should help you prepare for your trip, so you can stay healthy and enjoy the journey.
Do your research and prepare
Before you head off anywhere, read up about the country and what serious diseases are common there. Make sure you’re up to date with all your shots before you go and leave plenty of time. Some vaccines, like Hepatitis A, require a few shots before you’re good to go. Others have potentially unpleasant side effects you’d probably rather experience at home, rather than on your holiday. Getting the right shots for the area you’re going to will cut down much of the risk, although nothing is 100%. Read up about the way diseases are transmitted and follow any advice that can help you avoid contamination.
Many developing countries have a high prevalence of malaria, and while preventative medicine exists, it’s also not guaranteed to work. In fact, malaria is not the only insect-borne disease and some, like dengue fever, are not easily treatable. If you’re going anywhere where such insect-borne diseases are common, pack strong mosquito repellent and be sure to use it day and night. There are several kinds of mosquitos active at different times of day and night and each carries with it its own range of potential diseases and parasites. Your best bet is to minimise insect bites as much as possible by covering up and using insect repellent 24 hours a day.
Another thing to read about is the state of medical services in the country or countries you are going to. Some countries in the developing world have very good medical services and easily accessible pharmacies that will sell you anything you need. If you’re headed to one of those, you can save on packing space and weight by cutting down on the amount of medication you bring with you. This, of course, does not include any essential medication for pre-existing medical conditions. You may also want to carry a small amount of pain killers and anti-diarrhoea meds with you, as food poisoning and other unpleasant diseases can strike fast. You might not feel like hunting down a pharmacy when you’ve just taken ill. Eating well can be difficult while travelling, so you may want to pack your own vitamin tablets to make sure you’re getting all your nutrients. This, of course, is no replacement for trying to eat as healthily as possible while on the road.
The following tip sure sounds weird but may be of great help when it comes to doing away with bacterial stomach bugs. Head over to your nearest health food store and buy the strongest probiotics you can find. You may be used to antibiotics being prescribed for stomach bugs, but probiotics can often work just as well. They are essentially friendly bacteria used to restore the bacterial balance in your gut. Take one or two capsules a day while travelling as a preventative measure and if you get ill, take 4 or 5 at once at the first sign of trouble. Food poisoning and some nastier bacterial infections should clear after one or two such daily doses. Of course, if you’re ill for more than a few days, or the situation is particularly bad, seek out a pharmacy or a doctor and get a professional medical opinion and treatment.
Once travelling, there are a few things you need to get used to if you want to avoid getting ill. They can be divided into two parts – avoiding potentially harmful things and maintaining good personal hygiene.
Tap water is often contaminated in developing countries and even the locals won’t drink it most of the time. Use bottled water or carry your own filtering system when trekking or hiking. Don’t assume that river or spring water is going to be pollutant and disease free.
Avoid street food whenever possible, but if you must eat it, choose food stalls that are busy, so that food is not left lying around. Fruit should be fine to it, especially fruit that’s peeled in front of you.
Similarly, choose restaurants that are busy with locals and avoid empty ones or those only frequented by tourists.
As for personal hygiene – use a hand sanitiser before every meal and after every time you go to the bathroom, shower with anti-bacterial soap and avoid brushing your teeth with tap water – use bottled water.