Travel planning: Health precautions

Planning a trip abroad requires researching more than just transportation, accommodations, and activities. Different countries have different customs: for example, hygiene standards differ from one place to another, and food and water safety isn't always guaranteed. That's why it's important to be well prepared and to take appropriate measures before, during, and even after your trip to minimize the risk of contracting an infection or injuring yourself while you're away.

Before your trip

Travel health consultation

At least six weeks before your trip, schedule a consultation with a health care professional to receive a health assessment and any vaccinations or preventive medications you may need for your destination. Some vaccines must be administered several weeks before departure to be effective. In addition, certain countries require visitors to provide a vaccination certificate.

You can book a pre-travel consultation at your local pharmacist or travel health clinic.

Medications and first aid kit

Some drugs that are available over the counter in Canada require a prescription in other countries. Follow these tips to avoid problems at customs:

  • Ask your pharmacist to label all your medications.
  • Keep all medications and products in their original containers.
  • If you take any medications that must be administered by syringe, ask your pharmacist to write a note explaining that you need to use needles and syringes for medical reasons.

When packing your medications, bring slightly more than you'll need for the length of your trip. You should also bring a list of the generic names of your prescription medications, including their dosages, in case you need to obtain them locally. If applicable, bring a copy of your glasses/contact lens prescription as well.

Store medications in your carry-ons, and never leave them unattended. Do not keep them in your checked luggage in case it gets lost or stolen.

To find out what medications and health products to include in your first aid kit*, speak to your pharmacist. They'll put together a kit with everything you need.

Insurance

Before departure, make sure you have adequate insurance coverage for both yourself and your belongings. There are several types of travel insurance: cancellation insurance, baggage insurance, and health insurance. 

Health insurance is considered essential for all travel outside of Canada, including travel to the United States, even if your trip lasts only a few days. It covers the expenses incurred due to an illness or accident abroad, such as the following:

  • Medical and hospital bills
  • Cost of early return for treatment
  • Travel expenses for a loved one to come meet you

Some credit card companies offer this coverage if you pay for your trip by credit card. Make sure to double-check before taking out additional insurance. You should also carefully review your policy to find out whom to contact in case of a medical emergency.

Travel destination information sheet

Before you leave, find out what health and safety precautions you should take based on where you're travelling. Ask your pharmacist for the information sheet specific to your destination.

Registration of Canadians Abroad

It's also recommended to sign up for Registration of Canadians Abroad, a free service that allows the Government of Canada to notify you in the event of an emergency abroad or at home. Important information is also sent through this service before or during natural disasters or civil unrest.

During your trip

There are a number of precautions you should take while travelling to protect against exposure to illness or infection.

Food and water

In some countries, the water isn't always safe to drink, even in restaurants and major hotels. Although vaccination protects against some waterborne diseases, it is never 100 percent effective. Drink only bottled water that has not previously been opened, or water that you treat yourself. Avoid ice, as freezing does not kill germs. Don't use tap water when brushing your teeth, and don't swallow water when taking a shower.

Wash your hands often, especially before eating or drinking. Eat only cooked, boiled, or peeled foods. Avoid foods that are raw (e.g., lettuce), undercooked, or made with unpasteurized dairy products, foods that have been left at room temperature or in the sun, and foods sold by street vendors.

Untreated water may contain bacteria, viruses, or parasites that can cause diarrhea*. If you have diarrhea during your trip, drink plenty of safe fluids and take an oral rehydration solution.

Malaria

Malaria* is a serious, sometimes fatal infection transmitted by a certain type of mosquito in tropical and subtropical regions. The mosquito is most active between sunset and sunrise.

As there is no vaccine for malaria, it is advised to take antimalarial drugs (prescription only) if you are travelling to an area where malaria is present. The drugs must be taken before, during, and after your trip. They do not guarantee full protection against malaria, so you should also take measures to avoid insect bites* while travelling.

Sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs)

Some infections are spread through blood or other body fluids. To avoid contracting an STBBI, make sure to take the following preventive measures:

  • Use a male or female condom (latex or polyurethane) when having sex with casual partners.
  • During medical or cosmetic procedures (e.g., acupuncture, piercings, tattoos), make sure that all syringes and equipment are sterile.

Outdoors

To guard against potential risks, certain precautions should be taken during outdoor activities.

  • To protect your skin from the sun's rays*, wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.
  • When swimming in the ocean, don't touch anything, and be especially wary of corals (which can be sharp and cause skin reactions), jellyfish, and crabs.
  • On the beach, never go barefoot, and use a chair or beach towel to avoid sitting directly on the sand.
  • Never drink or touch water from freshwater streams (e.g., lakes, rivers, waterfalls, ponds), as it may be contaminated by parasites.
  • As a general rule, avoid direct contact with animals, whether domestic, captive, or wild, to reduce the risk of infection.
  • If planning a high-altitude excursion, keep in mind that you will need to acclimatize to the lower oxygen levels and may suffer from altitude sickness*. Prescription medications can be used to treat the symptoms.
  • You should also give yourself time to recuperate from jet lag, both when you arrive at your destination and when you return home.

When you get home

If you travelled to an area where malaria occurs, continue to take your antimalarial drugs as prescribed. Malaria is a serious infection that must be treated right away. If you develop a fever within a year of returning home, consult your health care provider and let them know that you recently travelled to an area affected by the disease.

You should also contact your health care provider if you experience any worrying symptoms upon your return. Explain where you were and mention any treatment or medical care you received during your trip.

*Ask your pharmacist for a more detailed information sheet on this topic.

For more information:
Services and information / Travel and tourism / Government of Canada
www.travel.gc.ca

Registration of Canadians Abroad
www.travel.gc.ca/travelling/registration
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