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What to do and avoid to stay healthy when traveling

Feb 24, 2012, 8:16 a.m.

Travel health risks are more common than most vacationers might assume -- and cover a much broader range of incidents than the occasional motion sickness. Case in point: Last January, 44 Canadians experienced the pleasure of a trip home from Cuba. For 33 of the passengers, the flight was interesting, a bit fearful, and perhaps somewhat smelly. For the other 11 passengers the symptoms of norovirus, including vomiting and diarrhea, shattered the conclusion of their vacation and put the entire planeload under the spotlight of Canadian officials.

A certain risk factor is attached to travel within the U.S. However, travel abroad involves an enhanced level of possible risks. Here are four types of health complications that can be reduced by following reasonable trip precautions.

Norovirus: There is no vaccine against this highly contagious but simple gastrointestinal virus. It cannot be treated with drugs, but will run out at the end of its course. Good hygiene, including frequent hand washing, is the primary defense method. The word "norovirus" is a catchall axiom for a family of viruses that spread via contaminated food and the surfaces that food touches, including countertops and door handles. Symptoms include diarrhea, low-grade fever, chills, and perhaps some vomiting. Seniors and elderly victims also run a high risk of severe dehydration.

Deep Vein Thrombosis: DVT falls into the category of situational travel health risks. It involves blood clotting due to long periods of physical inactivity such as sitting or lying still. Although DVT sometimes comes and goes without displaying any visible symptoms, there is a risk of serious pulmonary circulation complications. DVT is a common symptom that manifests during transit periods -- meaning long flights, train rides, car trips, etc. Practicing some form of physical mobility is your best defense against DVT. Flex the legs to stimulate blood flow. Take a short walk every couple of hours. Especially on international flights, make sure you get up at least once every two hours, even for just a quick stretch.

Traveler's Diarrhea: Also called called Montezuma's Revenge, this bacterial infection comes as a result of food or drink that is contaminated with E.coli. It's worldwide effect touches as many as 10 million individuals a year. Symptoms vary, but mild diarrhea is the least of them. Severe vomiting, stomach cramps, physical exhaustion and dehydration can accompany the worst-case scenario. Time is really the only cure, but traveling with an anti-diarrheal like Immodium can help. Avoidance of improperly prepared food and drink (meaning, vegetables that haven't been washed thoroughly, meat that isn't cooked through, and most especially unclean water) is the best preventive medicine.

Malaria: Don't mess around with mosquitoes. One bite can transmit the Plasmodium parasite into your blood stream. Malaria is a serious sickness with symptoms that include fever, headache and vomiting. Treatment requires professional help. When traveling to countries with a history of malaria endemics, ask your doctor to suggest the current preventative medical solutions, but also make sure you pack extra bug spray, clothes that fully cover your arms, legs, and neck, and even portable mosquito netting for sleeping under.

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