Staying Healthy Abroad
General Advice for Travelers and Expatriates
By Volker Poelzl
Staying healthy is a key concern for expatriates and travelers, who face unfamiliar diseases and a different health care system in foreign countries. Taking the right steps to remain in good health abroad can be a significant
challenge. The health information I provide in this column is based on my worldwide travel experiences, as well as my research, but since I am not a health-care professional, this information is only intended to provide general guidance. Contact
your local travel clinic for professional assistance.
Prepare Before you Go
The more you learn about the health risks of your destination, the better prepared you will be to stay healthy. AIDS, for example, is a huge epidemic in much of sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, and South America. The best
prevention is to avoid sexual contact with the locals and always use a condom to lower the risk of transmission. Avian flu has become a concern for travelers and expatriates in Asia, and it is a good idea to get updated information about outbreaks.
The WHO website has a separate page about the latest information regarding bird flu outbreaks.
Make sure that all your standard vaccinations are up to date. Inquire about additional vaccinations recommended for your host country, such as hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid fever, and yellow fever. If you are familiar
with the health services offered in your host country, you may be able to get some vaccinations for free, as opposed to paying high fees in the United States. In Brazil I received a free yellow fever vaccination, which costs about $100 in the
Also consider your own health. Are you sensitive to intense sunlight, heat, humidity, or certain allergens? Bring an international vaccination certificate (available at your local public health department) that lists all
your vaccinations. You should also bring information about allergies you may have to certain medications. If you wear eyeglasses or contact lenses write down the prescription details for easy replacement. If you take prescription medication,
bring the drug information. Many drugs are available worldwide, but you might have to settle for a generic or locally manufactured version.
Adapt to the Local Conditions
You can learn a lot of wisdom and knowledge from the local people; there are often some very simple tricks that can help you stay healthy. For example, locals may use drinking water filters on their kitchen faucets and clean
vegetables and fruits with purified water. In Islamic countries food is never eaten with the left hand, because that’s the hand you use to clean yourself in the bathroom. This makes perfect sense in countries where water is scarce and may
not always be available for washing your hands. Expatriates have a great health advantage over short-term travelers. They usually stay in one place for a longer period of time and are able to adapt to the local conditions.
Common Health Problems Overseas
The most common health problems for expatriates are related to the different bacteria found in food and drinking water, often leading to short-term diarrhea and digestive problems. Infections from insect bites, small cuts,
and wounds are also quite common. It is best to treat such small injuries with much more care than you would at home.
Another health risk for expatriates comes from a number of diseases we are unfamiliar with in developed countries with temperate climates. Many of these are insect-borne (and sometimes borne by other animals) and often occur
in urban areas with poor sanitation and poor public health services. Your best tool of prevention is information. Learn about how to avoid exposing yourself to animal-borne diseases. Epidemics are often brought on by favorable weather conditions,
such as frequent rain, which provides ample breeding grounds for mosquitoes. I have found the locals to be highly informed about insect-borne diseases, and I have always found their advice extremely valuable.
Getting Medical Help Abroad
If you develop a minor health problem, you can buy many prescription medications over the counter, especially in developing countries. You can also ask pharmacists, who often provide useful health advice. If you decide to
see a doctor, it is worth finding out about the local public health system beforehand. Many countries have a public health system where the locals, as well as foreigners, can see a doctor at a very low cost.
Another important concern is how to find a trustworthy doctor in case you have a health problem. Your embassy or consulate can often provide a list of local doctors and hospitals, or you can ask other expatriates, friends,
or co-workers for recommendations. Health care can vary drastically from country to country, even on the same continent; you should find out if it is better to visit private doctors and hospitals or to use the public health care system. Although
clinics and doctors’ offices in many countries are often less equipped than what expatriates are used to, I have found that local doctors provide an equal degree of care and concern for their patients. They are also familiar with the common
health problems of a specific region or time of year and can provide good care at a low lost.
Resources for Health Information:
World Health Organization
Centers for Disease Control
TransitionsAbroad.com’s Best Health and Safety Abroad Resources.
Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has traveled in more than 30 countries worldwide
and has lived in 10 of them for study, research, and work.