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Check in With a Travel Medicine Specialist Before Heading Overseas

airplane flying over water

Remember when a vacation meant a week at the Jersey shore or camping in the Poconos? While still popular, an increasing number of Americans are now seeking more exotic locales or so-called “adventure vacations.”

The result of this trend, plus the growing number of people who travel to the far corners of the earth for work, has meant a steady rise in the number of visits to travel medicine specialists.

“We see a wide range of patients, including business people, recreational travelers, people doing missionary work, and college students studying abroad among others,” says Suzanne Shepherd, MD, Medical Director of Penn Travel Medicine. “Traveling outside the United States can be a wonderful experience, but you may also encounter a range of health risks that require some preparation.”

Penn Travel Medicine

Penn Travel Medicine provides information, immunizations and counseling for international travelers who could be exposed to conditions such as poor sanitation and food preparation practices, along with infectious diseases which are rare in the U.S. Immunizations to protect travelers from these illnesses are recommended prior to a trip overseas.

“A travel medicine program gives you access to healthcare professionals who are very familiar with what is required when traveling out of the country,” says John Stern, MD, Chief of Infectious Diseases at Pennsylvania Hospital. “Most medical practices don’t stock the vaccinations that are required for some parts of the world, including yellow fever which you need a permit to administer.”

In addition to providing immunizations, specialists within Penn Travel Medicine also spend time counseling travelers on how to avoid getting sick while overseas and the intricacies of what their health insurance does and does not cover while they’re there. For example, many people know not to drink the water in certain parts of the world, but they may not stop to think that the lettuce in their salad was washed in the local water.

Tips for a Safe and Healthy Trip

Penn Travel Medicine offers these additional tips for a safe and healthy trip.

  • Prevent insect bites by putting Permethrin on your clothes, DEET on exposed areas or by using mosquito netting.
  • In developing countries, stick with bottled water or other beverages from sealed containers.
  • Food precautions can be summarized as “boil it, peel it, cook it, or forget it.” It is best to eat piping hot food and not food that has sat over a warmer.
  • Practice good hand-washing hygiene.
  • Maintain safe sexual practices, including the use of condoms.
  • Note that travelers to high altitude, above 8,000 feet, are at risk for acute mountain sickness.
  • Take enough medication to last through your trip and some extra. Carry it with you on the plane and not in checked luggage to reduce the risk of losing it. Also, carry back-up glasses.
  • If you rent a car, fasten your seatbelt and drive with caution, but it is generally considered safer to not drive yourself in a developing country.
  • Dress appropriately for the country in which you are traveling and familiarize yourself with the local culture. Avoid “bling” or other conspicuous adornments.
  • Contact your health insurance company to find out what is covered. Most U.S. insurance carriers do not cover medical emergencies, treatments or medical evacuations when you travel abroad. “Trip insurance” that you buy through an airline or travel agent may not be enough.
  • Beware of foreign drug laws, which are often much stricter than American laws.

While many people assume that a visit to a travel medicine specialist always happens before a trip, Stephen Gluckman, MD, says that he sees a surprising number of people after they have returned.

“About 30 percent of the patients I see come in after their trip because they have become sick during or just after their trip,” says Dr. Gluckman, who is Medical Director of Penn Global Medicine. “The most common issues are diarrhea or fever. Most of the patients end up being fine, but they are concerned and we make ourselves available to see them.”

All of Penn’s travel medicine specialists recommend visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website ( for the latest information about what immunizations are required for different parts of the world or other special warnings. However, the CDC advice cannot be tailored to an individual traveler’s itinerary, other health needs or their unique issues. That can only be done by a travel medicine specialist.

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