I am pretty safe and pretty careful while traveling, but somehow I can’t seem to avoid parasites. I’m a woman traveling alone, so I never walk by myself at night, I avoid creepy strangers, and I never travel without telling someone my whereabouts. Being careful is enough to avoid the big dangers. I just wish I could figure out how to escape the small dangers. (Never walk by myself through sewers, avoid creepy mosquito, never eat raw meat without telling someone my whereabouts?) Maybe it’s all the strange food I eat?
Just a few weeks ago I got worms. Yuck, right? But the worms weren’t the worst part. The worst part was how I discovered I had them in the first place (please don’t press me for details – I’m still traumatized). I won’t even get into the time I acquired Hepatitis abroad, except to say that it wasn’t the kind that sticks with you forever (phew!), just the kind you get from unwittingly eating an infected person’s poop. No big deal. And then there was that time I got malaria, despite taking all conceivable (and a bunch of inconceivable) measures to avoid it. Again the malaria wasn’t the worst part, it was the fact that I was stuck living with a man named Bongo who insisted on washing my underwear and thought I should really sleep in his bed, for, ummm, my safety? Perhaps this is why I prefer to travel in the colder parts of the world.
1. Don’t be afraid to insist on seeing a doctor. I have hypochondria, certainly. Everyone knows that, so it is hard to be taken seriously. But when I finally insisted that I get to the doctor, it wasn’t just malaria, it was falciparum, the worse form of malaria. So even though your instincts are probably a little crazy because they are always telling you HOLY CRAP YOU ARE DYING, recognize that they can still be right sometimes. My motto: Just because I’m a hypochondriac doesn’t mean I can’t still get the bubonic plague. It hasn’t failed me yet.
2. Take the usual precautions. I hate wearing DEET, so I got some semi-permanent stuff to spray on my clothes and sleeping net. It didn’t work great, but it worked pretty well. I also used some barbecue-scented Swedish pine tar, which works nearly as well as DEET but makes you smell like a grilled hamburger forever. Of course, you can’t really beat DEET. Anti-malaria pills really do work, even if they have some crazy side effects. (Side effects of long term use: hallucination. On the 6th month, when my friend started hearing his dog talk in Barry White’s voice, that was probably a sign to stop.) Quinine is a natural anti-malarial with an interesting history, but it has just as many side effects, if not more, ranging from erectile dysfunction to temporary deafness (and you’d need a lot more than is in tonic water). See a doctor who specializes in travel medicine before and after your trip. They will be able to give you great advice on the risks specific to your destination.
3. Don’t hug dirty strangers, or wear shoes/clothes that you find on the street without disinfecting thoroughly first. There is a species of lice that only lives on clothing. Also, scabies! And bed bugs! And fungus, oh my!
Once upon a time, I hiked through the rain forest to a beautiful tropical river. As I waded through the rocks and enjoyed the little fish exfoliating my legs, one of my flip-flops broke. I could not hike back through the rain forest in bare feet; soldier ants are vicious creatures. I despaired of ever getting home alive. Then, miraculously, a pair of flip-flops came floating down the river out of nowhere (I guess it wasn’t so unusual, the river wasn’t exactly pure). I thought, ‘these must be clean, they’ve been washed in the river for who knows how long!’ Mistake. Turns out foot fungus is really easy to get and really hard to get rid of in a warm wet tropical country. It took two month and a heavy course of systemic anti-fungal pills before the thing would leave me alone.
4. Speaking of shoes, always wear shoes! For worms, there are many routes of entry into a human, but the most common is through the feet. These worms can crawl anywhere within 6 feet of human feces, and keep in mind hiking trails are low on public toilets. They live in nearly every tropical country. On the other hand, a worm infection suppresses the immune system, which can cure asthma, allergies, diabetes, arthritis, IBD, and MS. You win some, you lose some. (*do not construe this as medical advice! Eeeew!)
5. Water can be a problem in many places. You can splurge for the nice filter – or buy some inexpensive yet foul-tasting chlorine/iodine – but if you will mostly be drinking bottled water, you can get one of these inexpensive Life Straw in case of emergencies. You could drink water from a river, a lake, even a stagnant manure pond and still be fit as a fiddle with one of these.. If the water in your country of choice is OK but not great, go with one of these non-iodized filtering bottles. They are kind of difficult to suck water through, but it is worth the trouble if you don’t want to end up doubled over with stomach cramps.
But many places have an unjustly bad rap for their tap water. Find out if your destination does water testing or water treatment, you’d be surprised how many places have great tap water (often even better than the tap in the USA). Swimming and wading are questionable activities, find out if the body of water has been tested, and if the area is home to leaches (especially the dreaded Asian aquatic leach, who will swim into any orifice it can find). Salt water is usually safest.
6. Eat safe food. If you only eat things that are cooked, washed with purified water, or wrapped in thick skins, you will be fine. I never follow this rule, but I think if the rotten shark has been hanging in the open air for a six months without a single carrion bird touching it, it can’t be a good home for parasites either (or good food for me). Make sure your food is fully cooked, especially your pork. I just don’t eat pork when abroad. There are other meat options (you could even go veggie), and I don’t fancy getting a tapeworm–if its babies swim to your brain, they may cause serious permanent damage up there.
7. Don’t get an STD! Practice safe sex like never before! I don’t care if condoms don’t feel as good! Don’t get gonorrhea!
8. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you still get sick. Before I got malaria, I took my pills religiously, I slathered myself in fowl chemical concoctions, I used a sleeping net, and I even peed in jars to avoid going outside at night. I did things only a crazily paranoid person would do, and I still fell deathly ill. Sometimes you have to make peace with the fact that you will get sick if you travel to a new and more sickly country, and your weak, sheltered body may react far worse than the bodies of locals. Sometimes you find yourself outside at night. Sometimes your flip-flop breaks mid-hike. Sometimes you can’t take malaria pills for the duration of your stay. Since pulling out all the stops in Africa, I’ve been to malarial countries and not taken pills at all with no problems. With parasites, sometimes no matter what you do or don’t do, it is mostly out of your hands, so enjoy your stay while you are there instead of knocking yourself out with worry.
8. If you do get sick…
For diarrhea or vomiting, drink a ton of water. If you can’t keep it down very well, take it in slow sips. Broth is even better, the salts keep your electrolytes balanced. Bonus points if you can find some yogurt, kefir, cultured sour cream, live kombucha, sauerkraut, or other beneficial probiotic product. Also, eat raw garlic and raw onions while traveling as much as you can bear: they have antiseptic properties that kill bad stuff, and prebiotic properties that boost growth of good stuff. If it is serious and you are becoming dizzy from dehydration, don’t be a fool, see a doctor. While we appreciate your readership, don’t take our advice in lieu of advice from an actual doctor.
For skin infections, coolness and dryness help, but nothing beats medicine. For the ladies, if you can’t get medicine for a yeast infection, garlic and yogurt can help (either as a preventative eaten over a long period or time, or for immediate relieve applied topically). The same is true for thrush.
For almost anything else, see a doctor for goodness sake.