Staying Healthy on Vacation in a Foreign Country

Photo by Mysaell Armendariz

How You Can Stay Away From the Summertime Blues

Summertime means vacation time. Beaches and drinks with umbrellas in them and lots of photos for Facebook and Instagram. For many travelers, however, vacations can also lead to sickness. Drinking bottled water helps reduce the chances of “Delhi Belly” and “Montezuma’s Revenge;” getting appropriate vaccinations are always recommended.

The chances of contracting Hepatitis A also increases when you travel outside of the American borders. This highly contagious viral disease is hardest on seniors with weaker immune systems. The disease attacks mainly the liver. At its peak, it can leave you feeling weak for an extended period of time – in some cases, even months. The symptoms begin several weeks after contracting the disease, so Hepatitis A won’t likely ruin your vacation – but it can put a damper on the rest of your summer.

How To Know If You’re At-Risk

Traveling with reputable companies to first-class accommodations does not eliminate contracting contagious diseases. In fact, quite the opposite is true. According to the World Health Organization, most cases of hepatitis A in travelers occur in those who stick to higher-level hotels and resorts. A gourmet meal or a pristine bathroom can still harbor disease – and the rigors of traveling can weaken your natural defenses. Assume you are at risk whenever you travel abroad, regardless of the level of cleanliness and service.

If you’re traveling in regions where hepatitis A outbreaks occur, avoid raw or undercooked meat and fish. If you buy fresh fruits or vegetables at a local market, wash them with bottled water before eating. Very hot coffees and teas are typically safe, but ask for a disposable cup, not a hand-washed mug.

While you’re on vacation, you may be substituting drinking water for other beverages, but dehydration can leave you vulnerable. Alcoholic drinks tend to be safe (use your straw, and – even on vacation – always drink in moderation). Drinking water is historically less so. Quench your thirst with bottled water instead of local “tap” water – and use bottled water when brushing your teeth. Skip the ice, and don’t drink beverages of unknown purity. If bottled water isn’t available, boil tap water before using it.

Wondering If You Have Hepatitis A?

Don’t panic. Most cases of hepatitis A are mild cases don’t require treatment. Nearly everyone who becomes infected recovers without permanent liver damage. But vigilance is always a better choice than treatment. Vaccines are available for people most at risk. Contact us if you have any questions or to schedule an appointment.

Hepatitis A can last from a mild case of several weeks to a severe case lasting a few months. Again, age often plays a factor in the severity of the symptoms. Hepatitis A signs and symptoms appear most often four weeks after exposure and develop over several days. Symptoms may also start abruptly in as few as two weeks or as many as seven, and include:

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort, especially in the area of your liver on your right side beneath your lower ribs
  • Clay-colored bowel movements
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low-grade fever
  • Dark urine
  • Joint pain
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)

Finally, not everyone with hepatitis A develops signs or symptoms. For this reason it is important to be diligent upon returning home from an area prone to the disease. Immediately, wash your clothing, bathe, and clean personal items with disinfectant.

Should You See the Doctor?

Exposure to hepatitis A can be treated before the first signs of symptoms. You can receive the hepatitis A vaccine within two weeks of exposure to thwart possible infection. Likewise, immunoglobulin therapy is also available before the beginning of symptoms. Ask your doctor – or your local health department – about receiving treatment for hepatitis A if:

  • You’ve traveled internationally recently, particularly to Mexico or to South or Central America, or to any area with poor sanitation
  • A restaurant where you recently ate reports a hepatitis A outbreak
  • Someone close to you, such as someone you live with or your caregiver, is diagnosed with hepatitis A
  • You recently had sexual contact with someone who has hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is not a living bacterial infection, it is a viral disease. As is the case with most viruses, there is no specific treatment or cure once infected. At this point, the only thing you can do is get a lot of rest.

How You Can Stay Healthy

To avoid getting hepatitis A you have to know how you can get infected in the first place. For all illnesses that commonly affect travelers, follow these simple instructions:

  • Do NOT eat food handled by someone who has not properly washed his or her hands.
  • Do NOT eat food that comes from contaminated water. Shellfish (like mussels, clams) or any local fish where there is an outbreak of disease.
  • Do NOT eat food that is washed in contaminated water. Eating even a healthful salad can make you sick in a month. Stick to cooked vegetables for your diet.
  • Hepatitis A is most often found on your hands (by shaking hands with someone who is infected, for example). The disease is then transferred to your mouth, where it enters your system. Be sure to wash your hands as often as possible.
  • Again, contaminated drinking water can put you at risk for Hepatitis A and other illnesses. Avoid ice and brush your teeth with safe, bottled water.

You can have a great vacation and not worry about contracting a disease if you practice good hygiene. Those most likely to contract hepatitis A will do so from contaminated food or water. But don’t forget that the disease can also spread from close contact with someone who’s infected. Wash your hands frequently, and any older travelers should look into the two-part Hepatitis A vaccine.

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