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Protecting yourself and your health whilst travelling overseas

Before travelling overseas and while travelling, it is important to take measures to minimise your chances of getting an infectious disease.

The following is general information about how to reduce your chance of getting an infectious disease while travelling. Not all recommendations are applicable to all destinations.

Prepare before you travel

At least 8 weeks before you travel it is important to seek advice about the health risks associated with your travel destinations by visiting your doctor or  travellers’ health centre (also known as travel clinic, travel medical centre or travel doctor). This is important even if you are only visiting friends and relatives overseas.

  • Check that all your routine vaccinations (including measles) are up-to-date and get advice about any additional vaccinations you may need.
  • Get advice on how to minimise the chance of common travel health problems (for example travellers’ diarrhoea) and what to do if you become sick while overseas.
  • Discuss any medications you may need to take on your trip to either make it less likely you will get sick (for example, medicines to make malaria less likely) or medicines you will need if you get sick. Ensure that you have enough of your usual medications. You may need a letter from your doctor with a list of your usual medications as some medications permitted in Australia may be illegal overseas.

Foodborne and waterborne illness

To reduce your chance of getting an infectious disease it is important to always wash your hands with soap and running water before eating, before preparing food, after going to the toilet and after touching animals or their environment (for example enclosure, bedding, food or handrails). It is best to use running water and soap, but if you don’t have access to these, use moist hand wipes (to remove any visible dirt or faeces) followed by an alcohol based hand rub.

In many areas of the world, food and water are less safe than in Australia, and foodborne illness (from consuming contaminated food) and waterborne illness (from drinking contaminated water or ingesting food or objects that have had contact with contaminated water) is a common problem.

In such areas, the following are recommended:

  • Do not eat raw fruit and raw vegetables unless you can peel them yourself.
  • Cooked food that is served hot is usually safe. However, if eating meat or eggs, only eat meat or eggs that is thoroughly cooked.
  • Only drink water that has been boiled or appropriately treated, or drink sealed bottled water.
  • Do not use tap water to clean your teeth. Use water that has been boiled or use sealed bottled water.
  • Do not eat ice or add ice to your drinks.
  • Carbonated drinks from sealed containers are usually safe, if no ice is added.
  • Vaccines are available against some foodborne diseases.

Sexually transmitted infections and blood borne viruses

In many countries Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and other blood borne and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are more common than in Australia.

When used correctly, condoms in combination with a water based lubricant will reduce the risk of many STIs during vaginal, anal or oral sex. Latex gloves also provide barrier protection for sexual activity involving fingers and dams can be used to protect against STIs during oral sex.

Whilst overseas, it is safer to not undertake tattoos, body piercing, acupuncture, intravenous drug use or cosmetic surgery as this may put you at increased risk of infection with blood borne viruses such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.

Contact with animals

Zoonotic diseases are infectious diseases that can be passed on from animals and their environment to humans.

Animals can carry a range of microorganisms (germs) harmful to humans without showing any sign of disease themselves.

Zoonotic diseases can be spread through:

  • direct contact with animals for example, touching an animal or through animal licks, bites and scratches
  • indirect contact with animals or their waste (for example, faeces, urine, saliva, blood, birth products) or their environment (for example enclosure, bedding, food or handrails)
  • it is important to avoid contact with any animals (including domestic animals such as dogs and animals such as monkeys even at tourist destinations).

Particularly:

  • do not allow children to feed, pat or play with animals
  • do not carry food, and do not feed or pat monkeys and other animals, even at popular tourist destinations
  • do not focus attention on animals carrying their young
  • do not visit farms or live animal markets in areas with known avian influenza
  • do not allow animals to lick open wounds, or your face and do not get animal saliva in your eyes or mouth.

Animal bites and scratches

Animal bites and scratches have the potential to transmit a range of zoonotic diseases including rabies. Rabies can usually be prevented if animal exposures are treated early, but is almost always fatal once symptoms start.

If you are licked on broken skin or bitten or scratched by any animal overseas:

  • Immediately thoroughly wash the wound with soap and lots of water for about 5 minutes. Proper washing of the wound is very important.
  • Apply antiseptic solution such as povidone-iodine or alcohol.
  • Promptly visit a doctor for treatment and assessment as to whether rabies vaccination and rabies immunoglobulin is needed. Rabies immunoglobulin is a solution containing antibodies specific for rabies that is made from blood products.

Mosquitoes

In some countries overseas mosquitoes can transmit serious and potentially fatal diseases such as malaria, Japanese encephalitis, yellow fever and dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika virus.

The following are recommended:

  • Cover up! Wear long, loose-fitting, light-coloured clothing, covering as much of the body as possible (mosquitoes can bite through tight clothes like jeans).
  • Avoid exposure outdoors when mosquitoes are most active.
  • Apply insect repellents containing DEET (diethyl toluamide) or picaridin on all areas of exposed skin. Always follow instructions on the label, particularly regarding use in young children and pregnant and breast feeding women.
  • Preferably sleep in areas with mosquito-proof mesh on doors and windows. However, in the absence of insect screens, cover sleeping areas with mosquito nets. Permethrin impregnated mosquito nets are best.
  • Consider permethrin treated (pre purchase or self-application) clothing and camping gear (for example, boots, pants, socks, and tents). Always follow manufactures instructions. Do not use permethrin directly on skin.
  • If travelling in a country where there is a risk of getting malaria your doctor may recommend you take medicine before you travel and while you are travelling to make it less likely you will get malaria.
  • Vaccination is available against some mosquito borne illnesses (for example yellow fever.

For more information and tips, see Fight the Bite!

Ticks

Ticks (a type of insect) can transmit serious infections including encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).

In countries with tick borne disease, take care when walking or hiking in wooded or grassy areas in moist and humid environments.

In particular:

  • Always walk in the centre of trails.
  • Apply insect repellents containing DEET (diethyl toluamide) or picaridin on all areas of exposed skin. Always follow instructions on the label, particularly regarding use in young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women.
  • Consider permethrin treated (pre purchase or self-application) clothing and camping gear (for example, boots, pants, socks, and tents). Always follow manufactures instructions. Do not use permethrin directly on skin.
  • Wear long sleeved protective clothing, long pants tucked into socks and a broad brimmed hat. After coming indoors, check your clothing for ticks. Wearing light coloured clothing makes it easier to see ticks on clothing before they attach to the skin.
  • After visiting tick infested areas remove all clothing and place into a hot dryer for 20 minutes (to kill any remaining ticks). 
  • Check your body thoroughly for ticks. Use a mirror so all body parts can be checked (especially behind the ears, on the back of the head, groin, armpits and back of knees).
  • Ensure your children are checked for ticks.
  • If you are allergic to ticks, only attempt to remove the tick whilst at a medical facility. Remove any attached tick by pulling it straight out with fine tipped forceps (or if unavailable use household tweezers), grasping as close to the skin as possible. Apply steady pressure and do not jerk, twist the neck or squeeze the body of the tick. Prior to removal the tick can be sprayed twice at one minute intervals with aerosol insect repellent containing pyrethrin or pyrethroid chemical. After removal clean the area and your hands thoroughly with soap and water or alcohol hand rub. See a doctor if you become ill and tell them about the tick.
  • Vaccination is available against some tick-borne illnesses.

Contact with fresh water

Skin contact with fresh water such as during swimming or wading can result in transmission of infections such as schistosomiasis and leptospirosis. In areas with these diseases:

  • do not swim or wade in potentially contaminated fresh waterways
  • adequately chlorinated swimming pools are usually safe
  • if unable to avoid exposure to potentially contaminated water, wear protective clothing, such as waterproof boots or waders
  • drying the exposed skin completely and vigorously may decrease the risk of schistosomiasis if accidently exposed.

Useful information

Consider the need for travel insurance and a travel medicine kit.

If you become unwell upon return home (particularly if you develop a fever) see a doctor and inform them of your travel.

The above information is intended as a guide only. For more information and details of recommended and required vaccinations and medications contact your doctor or a travellers’ health centre.

Useful links

 

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