Summer vacation: the health risks for travelers

1 Jul

Summer is officially here, which means many of us are likely to be looking forward to a well-deserved vacation. For almost half of those who are jetting off abroad, the ideal vacation involves sun, sea and sand. But while you’re busy packing your swimsuit and flip-flops, have you taken a minute to think about how you’re going to protect your health while away?
A woman sunbathing
Around 45% of us take a summer vacation, though more than 60% become sick during it.

Of course, a vacation is a time to relax and have fun. You want to soak up the sun, see the sights and make some memories. Chances are you have planned your vacation months in advance, so you want it to be perfect.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many of us have been struck down with the dreaded stomach bug while traveling, or have experienced painful sunburn as a result of a bit too much fun in the sun.

According to a recent national travel survey called Rx for Travel Health, 63% of American travelers report that they or a travel companion have become sick on vacation.

In this Spotlight, we take a look at some of the most common health risks that have the potential to turn your dream vacation into a disaster. But don’t worry – we’ll also take a look at what you can do to prevent them.


Sunburn is one of the most common ailments experienced by travelers, with around 62% of us reporting getting sunburnt while on vacation.

The immediate symptoms of sunburn include red, sore and swollen skin. It goes without saying that – depending on the severity – sunburn has the potential to ruin your vacation; it can be hard to enjoy yourself if it’s painful to move.

But the health risks associated with sunburn go much deeper. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, if a person has five or more sunburns, they are at twice the risk of developing melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Sun exposure is also a major cause of the two most common nonmelanoma skin cancers – basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma – and can also accelerate the effects of aging, increasing the appearance of wrinkles.

It is the ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun – as well as indoor tanning devices – that causes skin damage. Any form of tan is a sign of skin damage, and it takes only 15 minutes of UV exposure for this to happen.

One of the best ways to avoid any form of skin damage from sun exposure is to cover up. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants, where possible. If it is too hot, a beach cover-up or T-shirt is recommended.

Wearing a wide-brimmed hat that shades the face, ears and back of the neck is also a good idea, as is wearing wrap-around sunglasses – your eyes can also be subject to sun damage.

For areas of the skin that remain exposed to the sun, use of a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 is recommended. Around 2 tablespoons of sunscreen should be applied to the body 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapplied every 2 hours – more frequently if you have been swimming.

While it might be challenging while on vacation, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommend seeking shade when the sun is at its strongest – usually between 10 am and 4 pm, depending on your destination.

If you follow these recommendations, your chances of sunburn and prolonged skin damage will be greatly reduced.

Hot climates

When deciding on where to go for a summer vacation, many of us choose a destination based on the weather – and usually, the warmer it is, the better.

But although hot weather can be pleasant, it can also be a major health risk, particularly for people who are not used to such climates. According to Mayo Clinic, it can take several weeks for the body to adapt to a sudden jump in temperature, though – unfortunately – most of us are not on vacation for that long.

A woman using her drink to cool down
Heat stroke is one of the most severe heat-related illnesses, occurring when the body is unable to control its core temperature.

Heat stroke is one of the most severe heat-related illnesses, occurring when the body is unable to control its core temperature. Body temperature may increase to 106 degrees within 10-15 minutes, but the sweating mechanism the body normally uses to cool down is unable to cope. This can cause dizziness, nausea, headache, confusion, unconsciousness and – in severe cases – death.

Young children, the elderly, people who are overweight and those who are ill are at highest risk of heat stroke, though anyone exposed to high temperatures for prolonged periods is at risk. There are, however, a number of things you can do to reduce the odds.

Seeking shaded areas where possible can lower the risk of heat-related illness, as can wearing loose-fitting, lightweight and light-colored clothing, which enables the body to sweat and cool down properly.

Drinking plenty of fluids – avoiding alcohol – helps keep the body hydrated, allowing it to sweat and maintain a normal temperature.

Limiting outdoor activity to morning and evening hours – when it is cooler – can also reduce the risk of heat-related illness, as can reducing exercise. If you do exercise, drink two to four glasses of nonalcoholic fluids every hour.

As mentioned previously, avoid getting sunburnt. Not only does it pose long-term health risks, it reduces the body’s ability to cool down, raising the risk of heat-related illness.

If lounging by the pool, dipping in and out the water can help keep you cool. But beware, the pool harbors some other – perhaps surprising – health risks…

Pool parasites

A major part of a summer vacation for many of us is lounging by the pool, going for a swim now and again to cool down or to have a splash about with the kids.

But while a dip in the pool can be relaxing and fun, it can also pose a number of risks to your health.

A recent report from the CDC found that over the past 20 years, there has been a significant rise in the number of illnesses caused by parasites living in swimming pools and hot tubs. In 2011-12, such parasites were the cause of 1,788 illnesses, 95 hospitalizations and one death in the US.

The most common culprit was found to be a parasite called Cryptosporidium, or “Crypto,” which accounted for around half of all recreational water-related illnesses. Crypto is the cause of a disease called cryptosporidiosis, which can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps or pain, nausea, dehydration, vomiting, weight loss and fever.

Cryptosporidium is resistant to chlorine – the main chemical used to sanitize pools and hot tubs – meaning it can live for up to 10 days, even in pools and hot tubs that are well maintained.

But what is causing such a parasite to reside in pools and hot tubs? We are, according to the CDC.

An individual who uses a swimming pool when they have diarrhea can spread parasites such as Crypto to other pool users. A 2009 survey from the CDC found that 1 in 5 of us admit to urinating in swimming pools – another way in which germs can be spread to others.

While it is impossible to ensure other pool users are hygienic, there are some simple steps you can take to help reduce your risk of illness:

  • Avoid using the pool if you have diarrhea
  • Shower before entering the water
  • Avoid swallowing pool water
  • Avoid urinating or defecating in the water
  • Ensure children take regular toilet breaks.

Food and drink

When you travel abroad – particularly to countries with different cultures – it’s always nice to experience some traditional cuisine. But a change in diet and the differences in the way food is prepared can sometimes disagree with our bodies.

According to the Rx for Travel Health survey, around 12% of American travelers experience food poisoning while on vacation. Food poisoning can last for days, causing such severe sickness and diarrhea that it is almost impossible to leave your hotel room.

Around 12% of American travelers experience food poisoning while on vacation.

But there are a number of ways you can avoid getting the dreaded stomach bug in a foreign country.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommend avoiding the consumption of tap water when vacationing in developing countries, as such water is often contaminated with parasites and bacteria that can cause a number of illnesses, including cholera and typhoid fever.

Instead, drink bottled water – ensuring the seal has not been broken – or water that has been properly treated with commercial iodine or chlorine tablets.

Avoid eating raw fruits and vegetables – unless you have prepared them yourself – as these may have been rinsed with contaminated water.

Be wary of eating fish and shellfish when abroad. According to the CDC, around 50,000 annual cases of foodborne illnesses among US travelers are caused by these foods.

Ensure meat and poultry are thoroughly cooked before eating them, and avoid prepared food that has been left unrefrigerated for a number of hours – especially meat, poultry, egg and dairy products.

Other vacation health risks

While we have covered some of the most common vacation health risks, there are some others that may not have crossed your mind:

  • Jet lag – traveling to destinations in a different time zone can disrupt your circadian rhythm, leaving you feeling tired and sluggish for days. The National Sleep Foundation recommend selecting a flight that arrives early evening and staying up until 10 pm local time, helping to get your body used to the time difference
  • Handling local currency – there are millions of germs living on notes and coins, but when on vacation, you may be more likely to get ill from them. In Egypt, for example, the local currency is well known to be the main source of “Pharaoh’s Revenge” – a potentially deadly stomach bug. Ensure you wash your hands thoroughly after handling money. If this is not possible, carry an antibacterial gel with you
  • Do you need vaccinating before you go? – this is particularly important if you are traveling to developing countries, where conditions are often less sanitary and pose higher risk of infection. Speak to your doctor to find out whether you need any vaccinations before you go
  • Bug bites – depending on where you are traveling to, bites from mosquitoes, wasps and other pests can pose health risks. Check what creepy crawlies are common in your destination and stock up on sprays, creams or other products that can help stave them off.

As well as the aforementioned recommendations, people with existing medical conditions should ensure they take any required medication with them, and it is a good idea to check there are health care services available at your destination should you require treatment.

It is also a good idea to take a first aid kit with you in the event of any cuts, grazes or sprains, and travel health insurance is recommended to ease the financial burden of any medical treatment or hospitalization required while away.

When it comes to traveling abroad, planning is key for protecting your health. As long as you are aware of the health risks and take the required precautions, you can help ensure you and your travel companions have that dream vacation.

Written by Honor Whiteman