Advise Me

The Best Ways to Prepare for a Medical Emergency Before You Travel

Now that many of us are vaccinated, we’re eager to visit people and places, so we’re planning everything from weekend getaways near home to exotic vacations at bucket-list destinations.

It’s fun to research the best beaches, trendiest restaurants and off-the-beaten-path sites. But make sure you plan for the health emergencies that could ruin your fun when you’re away from home.

Jasjot Johar, MD, medical director of the emergency department at McKee Medical Center in Loveland, CO, said, “The most important first-aid kit is your brain. Trying to prevent medical emergencies is always better than trying to deal with them.”

Even in destinations where the language, cuisine and culture are different from yours, a lot of the medical emergencies you might face on vacation are the same problems you might encounter at home. Here’s how to prepare.

Before you travel

Pack a first-aid kit

Bring these first-aid items with you in your carry-on bag, not your checked luggage, in case your luggage gets delayed or lost:

  • Any medication you take regularly. And make sure you bring enough to last for your entire trip – Dr. Johar said that’s a common oversight
  • Your EpiPen and any other medication you need for severe allergies
  • Anti-nausea medication if you’re prone to seasickness or carsickness
  • Malaria medication if you are traveling to a country where this illness is common
  • Altitude medicine if you’re traveling to a high altitude where you might develop altitude sickness

You may also want to bring adhesive bandages, tweezers and any over-the-counter medications you think you might need. Of course, you can find things like painkillers, antacids, antihistamines, and medication for indigestion or diarrhea just about anywhere. But if you’re dealing with a headache, stomach ache or another minor health issue, it’s nice to be able to treat it without searching for a store.

Find out where to get medical care

Spend a few minutes before your trip to find the closest urgent care center or hospital. “Having a medical emergency is always scary, especially if you are in another country,” Dr. Johar said. “A little research doesn’t take much time and can give you some peace of mind.”

He said medical care all around the world is generally quite good. “While you can’t plan for these events, it is good to know quality care is available. Local physicians understand local infections and treatments and can help out,” he said.

Dr. Johar said his daughter needed an emergency appendectomy when she was trekking in rural India near the Himalayas: “It was scary as a parent, but the surgery and outcomes could not have been better. Trying to evacuate her to the U.S. could have been a dangerous delay, and the local surgeons were terrific.”

If you are traveling internationally and you don’t know where to go for medical care, you can contact the local U.S. embassy.

Consider travel health insurance and medical evacuation insurance

Before you travel, contact your health insurance provider to see what coverage you have at your destination. If your coverage is minimal, you are going to a less developed region, or you have medical problems that might require care, you’ll probably want travel health insurance or medical evacuation insurance.

“This coverage is surprisingly inexpensive, while an air ambulance from overseas can easily run over $100,000 and is not usually covered by your own health insurance,” Dr. Johar said.

Get any needed vaccines at least a month before you travel

If you are traveling internationally, you might need certain vaccines, depending on your destination. “Certain diseases that are very rare in the United States can be prevented overseas,” Dr. Johar said. Talk to your doctor about what you need and how to schedule your vaccinations.

Research the local foods and water

“Every water supply has some bacteria, and your body is used to the bacteria in your home water,” Dr. Johar said. So different water, or foods prepared with it, could cause diarrhea and vomiting.

Find out what risks you might face from the food and water before you go, and plan to drink bottled water, skip the ice and choose your foods carefully, depending on your destination. You can also ask your doctor for medication to prevent nausea.

Know the COVID-19 requirements and recommendations

“Safety while traveling has taken on a whole new meaning with COVID-19,” Dr. Johar said. Your destination might require vaccination, and you may need to be tested for COVID-19 before you travel there or home. Airlines, airports and public transportation still require masks.

At your destination

Protect yourself from dehydration and sunburn

Dehydration and sunburn are the most common travel-related medical emergencies, according to Dr. Johar.

Remember to drink plenty of water. “When you are very active, you tend to push yourself a little harder than usual. You may have a schedule you are trying to keep, and you don’t take the time to hydrate properly,” Dr. Johar said. “Vacations can be expensive, and it is a shame to miss part of it because you just did not drink enough water.”

You can prevent sunburns by slathering on sunscreen, covering up your skin and scheduling your outdoor activities for early or late in the day when the sun’s rays aren’t as strong.

Watch out for waterside injuries

At the beach, you might get stung by a jellyfish or stingray or step on a shell, sharp rock or sea urchin. If you get stung, seek local medical care. “Locals tend to know the appropriate treatment for most common ocean or beach-type emergencies,” Dr. Johar said. And don’t follow the advice that says to urinate on a jellyfish sting – it doesn’t help.

If you cut yourself in or near salt water, wash the injury carefully right away. This water can carry different types of bacteria than fresh water and can cause more serious infections.

Wash your hands often

Good handwashing can prevent a lot of infections. Wash your own hands, keep a close eye on what your children are touching and encourage them to wash their hands frequently.

The bottom line

With good preparation, you can reduce the risk you’ll face a medical emergency when you travel, and you’ll be better prepared to face one if something crops up. And remember, vacations are about having fun, and new experiences are part of the joy of travel. “Don’t avoid new experiences, just be prepared for them. Preparation always beats treatment,” Dr. Johar said.

Here are more tips for staying safe and healthy when you’re traveling: