A "traveler's health kit" can make the difference between a spectacular vacation savoring a foreign country and a disaster with days spent in bed or the bathroom.
Travelers to foreign countries these days often worry a lot about terrorist attacks - a very real risk - while paying less attention to the health threats that constantly spoil vacations. Little can be done to reduce the risk of being caught in a terrorist attack. Advance planning can keep illness from ruining a trip.
By far the biggest threat is the disease named for travel - traveler's diarrhea, which also has other colorful and descriptive names.
Traveler's diarrhea can involve vomiting, nausea, stomach cramps, headache, fever, and other symptoms - in addition to those urgent trips to the bathroom. People usually get it from bacteria in drinking water or food.
Guidebooks offer good rules for avoiding traveler's diarrhea. High on the lists: Avoid raw fruits and vegetables; drink only bottled water and other beverages; say "no" to ice cubes, which may be made from contaminated water; and be wary of food sold from street vendors.
Experienced travelers would add a few footnotes. For one, make sure each bottle of water is factory sealed, rather than an empty refilled and recapped. Check the cap before buying. In restaurants, insist on opening the bottle yourself.
Take every precaution in the book, however, and traveler's diarrhea still can strike out of the blue.
A traveler's health kit recommended by the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes a prescription antibiotic for self-treatment of serious diarrhea. That antibiotic can change a vacation-ruining episode of diarrhea into an inconvenience that ends in a day or so.
Family doctors should be sensitive to a request for a small supply of antibiotic that will be used only if needed. The doctor certainly would carry some, if he or she sunk a bundle of money into a vacation where diarrhea might spoil everything.
If not, mention that an antibiotic is in the CDC-recommended kit. It may help.
CDC lists the full contents of the kit on its web site (www.cdc.gov/travel/other/travelers-health-kit.htm). The kit also is in "Health Information for International Travel." Medical people call it "The Yellow Book," and regard it as a highly authoritative guide. The full book is available online (www.cdc.gov/travel/yb/index.htm).
The travel kit medicine list includes anti-malaria drug, an antihistamine, decongestant, motion sickness medication, drugs for pain and fever, cough suppressant, Pepto Bismol (which can stop mild cases of traveler's diarrhea), antibacterial ointment, and hydrocortisone cream.
Obviously, the contents are meant to tailored to fit individual trips. Travelers to Europe, for instance, won't need anti-malaria medicine and have a low risk of getting traveler's diarrhea.
Include whatever prescription medicines you take at home. Keep them in the original pharmacy containers. For controlled substances, carry a copy of the original prescription.