Health for Women on the Road: Essential Tips for Travelers
By Beth Whitman
All travelers must deal with health issues at some point or another while on the road. However, there are a number of conditions and problems specific to women. While you may never experience many of these in your daily life, the stress, pace of travel and exposure to new and exotic foods and diseases, may increase your exposure to, and potential for developing, any one or more of these health issues.
Preparing yourself in advance and understanding what you may encounter will help you stay healthier during and after a journey.
Before You Go
Health, travel, and evacuation are the three types of insurance to consider as a traveler. All provide very different purposes.
Health: Many health insurance policies cover travel abroad in the case of an accident and may reimburse you for emergency and urgent-care expenses once you have paid out of pocket. Government programs such as Medicare, however, generally do not cover care outside of your country of residence. Check with your provider to confirm if and how much coverage you may have at your destination. If you do have coverage, keep in mind that it might not include activities such as adventure sports (scuba diving, for example).
Travel: If you have shelled out a heap of money for a tour package or non-refundable hotel or air tickets, consider travel insurance. This protects you in the event you have to cancel or postpone your trip. For example, you may be forced to stay home to take care of a loved one or you may become pregnant between the time you book your trip and you are scheduled to depart on an adventure not suitable for a pregnant woman.
Depending on the policy, other benefits may include baggage reimbursement, medical, dental and evacuation coverage.
Evacuation: This type of insurance can provide transportation to a medical facility in the case of a serious accident or illness in which you don’t want to be treated by the local hospital. For example, you would want to be flown to a major city or possibly home in the case of a severely broken bone caused by a fall or head injuries sustained in a car accident. The cost of such an evacuation can easily top out at $60,000. With evacuation insurance, you would be responsible for your deductible and little, if anything, else.
Medicines and Prescriptions
If you are prone to certain illnesses (yeast infections, for example), consider carrying your own prescriptions if you are uncertain about their availability at your destination.
Keep them in their original package and bring copies of the prescriptions. The copies will not only confirm your need for the medication if you’re questioned by authorities, but you’ll be able to get a refill if you run out or lose your bottle along the way.
Prepare a medical bio sheet that includes detailed info on your health, medications and allergies. Include the names and phone numbers for both your doctors and family members. Keep a copy at home as well as one in your luggage.
If you have allergies or medical issues, wear a medical alert bracelet. In the event of an emergency, the information on the bracelet can help a doctor more quickly diagnose a problem or be sure you’re given the correct medicine.
Research well in advance of your journey to determine whether specific vaccinations are suggested or required for your destination. Some, such as hepatitis A, require a series of shots over several months, requiring you to plan in advance.
While there are no vaccinations related to travel that are female-specific, you’ll want to cover the usual suspects, DPT (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus), hepatitis (“a” and “b”), polio, typhoid, yellow fever and others that may be recommended by your doctor or the Centers for Disease Control.
On the Road
Jet lag is caused by a change in your circadian rhythm, which is ultimately a disruption in the amount of light and dark you are exposed to. When traveling across numerous time zones, your body gets out of sync relative to the time at your destination and literally becomes confused as to when to eat and sleep. While not usually debilitating, it can be annoying since you generally want to maximize your time awake while traveling.
Besides turning off the in-flight entertainment system and trying to get some sleep on a long flight, there are a number of things you can do to help offset jet lag while you’re on the plane.
First, set your watch to the local time and act accordingly. If it’s the middle of the night at your destination, sleep and get rest. Set your alarm for “morning” so that you can get on track with the local time. Use natural sleep aids such as valerian root, eyeshades, earplugs or noise-canceling headphones and a travel pillow.
Drink lots of fluids to keep your body hydrated and eat well, avoiding airplane and airport food. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, both of which can dehydrate you. Eat when you would normally eat based on the time at your destination.
a homeopathic tablet that contains chamomile and is proven to
be a safe and effective way to get over jet lag by inducing a
light sleep. You can order this from their website or pick it
up at your local pharmacy or grocery store.
Avoid sleeping pills. You’ll want to sleep lightly enough that you move around to keep your circulation flowing. And, taking sleep medications during your flight can cause you to arrive drowsy, making you more of a target for theft or crime.
Traveler’s diarrhea is quite common amongst anyone venturing beyond his or her own region. This is simply loose bowels caused by bacteria from food or water. It’s easily treatable with antibiotics. However, if you aren’t on the move (travel-wise) and can wait it out, try to skip the antibiotics. This may allow your system to become used to the bacteria and help you avoid future stomach problems.
If you do get diarrhea, staying hydrated is extremely important (especially in the heat) and you would do well to supplement with electrolytes to avoid the loss of important nutrients to your body.
The main symptom of amoebic dysentery, caused by contaminated food and water, is bloody diarrhea and is far more serious than a simple bout of Montezuma’s revenge. Complications of the liver can occur if left untreated. See a doctor immediately if you suspect amoebic dysentery.
Women’s Health Issues
Yeast infections are caused by stress, antibiotics, wearing tight clothing or even wearing a bathing suit for an extended period of time. If you think you have a yeast infection—which is accompanied by itching, discharge, burning during urination, rash and odor—apply an over-the-counter topical vaginal cream and eat yogurt with acidophilus, or see a doctor for a prescription if symptoms persist for more than a week.
Symptoms include burning while urinating, frequent urination, and dark-colored urine. A mild case of this will clear up in a few days on its own, but drinking lots of water and/or cranberry juice will help. Visit a doctor if the symptoms persist or you are in pain.
Though this may not always be the case, expect that menstrual cramps will be worse than usual when you’re traveling. Being out of sync with your time zone, eating at irregular times and foods that you are not used to, as well as the stress that comes with travel, can all cause menstrual cramps that are more severe than normal.
Carry a natural or prescribed pain reliever for this purpose so that these issues don’t interfere with your precious travel time.
If you are on the pill, your period should continue to be regular throughout your travels although stress and heat can occasionally throw your body’s regularity off. Do bring enough birth control pills for the entire duration of your trip and note that antibiotics can render the pill ineffective.
If there is the slightest possibility that you will be having sex with someone you meet in your travels, carry condoms! And do not be shy about asking your sexual partner to use one. The pill will not give you protection against sexually transmitted diseases—and an STD is the last souvenir you want to bring home.
If you plan to travel while you are pregnant, note that the second trimester is the best time to travel. The worst nausea will be over after the first three months, the risk of a premature delivery will be low in the second trimester, and you may be too uncomfortable to travel during your final months. Airline policies differ, but some outright forbid travel on international flights in the last five weeks of pregnancy.
Bulkhead seats will give you more leg room, but you’ll have to place all carry-on bags in the overhead compartment, making it difficult for you to get to your things.
Many vaccinations and medications are either unsafe or untested for pregnant women. If you become infected with a disease such as malaria, it can severely affect your unborn child. Before making travel plans, consult with your doctor in order to avoid potential hazards or problems.
The virus that causes AIDS is spread through contaminated body fluids. You should never, ever have unprotected sex or come in contact with a needle that has not been sterilized, including those at tattoo parlors and medical facilities. The rate of HIV/AIDS infection around the world is growing rapidly, particularly in developing countries.
Being armed with a first-aid kit well-stocked with items to handle issues for which you may be prone, may make a world of difference in how your journey continues.
Beth Whitman is the author of the Wanderlust and Lipstick guides for women travelers and runs tours to India through her company, WanderTours.