Health and Safety Travel Tips
by Barb Bloomer, Director St. Norbert College Health Services
Whether you are traveling overseas or within the United States, there are some risks you should be aware of and what you can do to protect yourself from disease, injury, or disability.
Risks for many diseases have been reduced through vaccinations against those diseases. The following are immunizations that would be recommended for those who travel, even within the U.S.
Hepatitis A: If you will be going to an area of endemic Hepatitis A, such as refugee centers, homeless shelters, Mexico, you may wish to consider this vaccine. This virus is passed through contaminated food and water, therefore assuring that food is fully cooked and water has been treated will reduce this risk. Always wash hands vigorously with soap and water before eating. Washing fruit and vegetables with soap and water will also protect against Hepatitis A. The vaccine is a 2 dose series and can be completed in 6 months, however a single dose protects for the short term. This vaccine is available in the Health Center.
Hepatitis B: This virus is passed in the blood and body fluids, therefore, reducing exposure to these will reduce the potential for exposure. If you have the potential for exposure to blood or body fluids, you must use appropriate protective methods. These would include appropriate training in gloving technique, shielding of eyes, nose and mouth, and disposing of any contaminated items, or sharp objects that have been exposed to blood or body fluids. The complete series is 3 shots over a 6-12 month period. If you started the series, but are not sure if you completed it, check your records. Hepatitis B can be started, as well as completed at the Health Center.
Hepatitis C: This virus does not have a vaccine to protect against. It is transmitted mainly through blood and is the fastest growing of the hepatitis viral infections. The most readily means of transmission is through IV drug use, however, body piercing and tattooing, (particularly if the ink is re-used) can be a source of infection. It is imperative that body art facilities are thoroughly evaluated as to the means of sterilization of equipment and renewal of ink. For more information about Hepatitis C, please stop in the Health Center.
HIV/AIDS: HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, kills “CD4 helper cells” which help the body fight off infections and disease. AIDS, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, is a disease one gets when HIV destroys the body’s immune system, which when it fails, people get very sick and can die. HIV can be acquired through unprotected sex (vagina, penis, rectum, or mouth) with someone who has HIV, sharing needles in drug use, through blood transfusions ( all US blood is screened for HIV, but not necessarily in other countries), and babies born to women with HIV during pregnancy, birth or breast-feeding.
Rabies: Rabies is a virus that is contracted through exposure to the saliva of an infected animal. This is usually through a bite or a scratch. Rabies is fatal. A pre-exposure vaccine is available for those who may be working with animals or spelunking in caves, or know that rabies is endemic in the area where they will be working. This vaccine requires 3 doses and needs about 6 weeks to complete. If bitten by any animal, domestic or wild, seek medical attention immediately, as treatment may be effective if received early. Do not befriend any strange or wild animals, as most will not have had rabies vaccinations.
Tetanus and Diphtheria: Tetanus is a serious, life threatening bacterial disease induced by an exotoxin of the tetanus bacillus. Tetanus is found in soil and can enter the body through a cut, scrape, burn, thorn prick, or sliver. Diphtheria is a bacterial infection of the throat and the skin, producing a gray patchy lesion with surrounding inflammation. This is transmitted through the air in areas where diphtheria is present. The best prevention for Tetanus and Diphtheria is to maintain up-to-date tetanus/diphtheria boosters, which should be given every 10 years when the childhood series is complete.
Tuberculosis: This disease can take years to develop after exposure. Individuals working in homeless shelters, hospice or AIDS clinics should consider having a TB skin test done 3 months after return from these sites. Insects can cause a variety of illnesses, and the most recent is the West Nile Virus, spread through the bite of an infected mosquito. Continuous use of insect repellents with DEET (Deep Woods Off, etc) while outdoors will help reduce the risk of bites; staying inside at dusk and early morning hours, also will help. Spiders, snakes, and rodents can also cause some significant medical problems. Be aware of your surroundings and what types of animals are hazardous. If any bites occur, seek medical attention immediately.
Injuries can occur any time and any place, but being prepared for your endeavor will lessen the potential for a serious injury. Vehicular accidents remain the number one form of injury for young adults. Seatbelt use can be the single most effective thing you can use while traveling. Inexperience in a new skill may also increase the risk of an injury. Use only equipment you have been trained to use and ask questions before embarking on a new skill. Use safety equipment that is provided and don’t cut corners.
Sunburn is a great risk for anyone. However, when traveling to southern areas, especially when it has been many months since direct skin exposure to the sun has occurred, there is potential for significant sunburn. The sun’s rays are dangerous to all skin, however, some individuals with lighter pigmentation may be at a higher risk of severe sunburn. The most intense time of sun exposure is from 11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m..
Sunscreen with SPF of 15 or greater should be worn when in the sun for more than a few minutes. The higher the number of SPF, the longer the sunscreen will protect. Sweating and swimming will reduce the effects of sunscreen and the sunscreen should be re-applied after swimming and after sweating. Wearing a wide brimmed hat, or at least a sun visor, will help in reducing direct sun to the face and eyes. Sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection should be worn whenever there are activities in the sun.
While sunburn can be painful and cause significant drying, in severe cases it can cause 3rd degree burns, which must be medically treated.
If sunburn occurs, cool the area with a cool cloth and observe skin for any blistering. If blisters occur, do not open the blister, but observe and watch for any signs of infection (increased redness, any drainage, or increase in pain over time). Do not apply any lotions or creams to a blister or open skin, as this may increase the potential for infection. For 1st degree burns, avoid lotions with alcohol or fragrances in it. Lotions that my help the drying of a 1st degree burn include: glycerin, aloe vera, or first aid cream. Do not use antibiotic or hydrocortisone creams on any burns. If in doubt about the type of burn, seek medical attention for the best treatment.
Finally, check with your health insurance company to assure that you can obtain medical care where you are traveling. Many companies have designated providers that cover you. It is best to try to identify where these are before you embark on your journey.
If you have any questions, about any of this information, please contact one of the nurses at the Health Center 403-3266, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.