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Senior travel: 5 health questions to ask before your next trip

Joel Jutkowitz By Joel Jutkowitz

I spent 30-odd years traveling the world for work and pleasure, often visiting less developed countries. Along the way, I faced a variety of health challenges, some due to inadequate health care systems and others to gaps in my own preparations. I’ve dealt with parasites in Peru and a high fever in Thailand and the Philippines.

Each incident gave me new insight into staying strong while away from home. To help ensure your journey is without health surprises, the following precautions are as important as your passport:

1. Do I need to get vaccinations or other preventive drugs?

In tropical countries, preventive medications are critical. During one round-the-world trip, I had to take two such drugs: one for standard malaria, and another to fight the falciparum strain that is endemic in Pakistan. Travelers usually begin anti-malaria pills just before leaving home and continue for a while after their return.

Check the websites of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization for recommendations regarding all the countries you intend to visit. Then book a visit with your doctor to review your immunization record and get any boosters or specialized shots you need. If you’re traveling internationally, make your appointment 3 to 6 months in advance, since it takes time for certain vaccines to function. Then keep your immunization record with your other travel papers; some countries require proof upon entry.

2. Does my health plan cover me at my destination?

Most health plans cover expenses inside the United States, but not overseas. First, ask your insurance provider whether they offer coverage for international travel. Some Aetna plans, for example, cover emergency care anywhere in the world, including medical evacuation.

You may also consider travel insurance, which can cover medical expenses as well as trip cancellation and other concerns. Simple travel medical plans can range from $40 to $80 for a week overseas. My wife once accompanied me on a two-week business trip to Ukraine. Near the end, she developed a fever. Besides covering the care she received, our carrier was able to direct us to a doctor trained at the Cleveland Clinic.

3. What should I do if I become sick or injured?

Don’t try to tough it out if you become ill. In fact, you need to pay closer attention to possible symptoms than you would at home. In Ukraine, my wife’s fever turned out to be a severe bronchial infection that required antibiotics. We had planned to go on to Istanbul, but instead cut the trip short when we realized the seriousness of her illness. Thankfully, she recovered within a week of our return.

Heading home may seem like the best option when you’re feeling unwell, but it’s important to first seek treatment. Contagious illness can easily spread among fellow passengers. “If you think you have the flu, see a health care professional,” says John Moore, DO, an Aetna medical director. “Start antiviral medication right away while you rest in your hotel room. That will put other travelers at less risk, since antivirals stop you from being contagious very quickly.”

To find a competent local doctor with whom you can communicate, get recommendations from your insurance provider or hotel. Aetna members, for instance, can find providers in the U.S. and abroad by calling the customer service number on the back of their insurance card.

4. How do I find out if a destination can accommodate my special needs?

From ski resorts and Disney parks to African safaris, many destinations are prepared to cater to travelers with special needs ― but not all of them. A good friend of mine, an accomplished political scientist with limited mobility due to childhood polio, has lectured all over the world. He has always been able to find appropriate accommodations and restaurants with some advance research.

You can call potential facilities directly, but consider connecting first with a support organization or travel agency that understands your condition. The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality provides general information on hotels, adaptive travel products (oxygen tanks, dialysis), and resources for a variety of special travel needs including:

  • Wheelchairs/scooters 
  • Blindness/vision impairment 
  • Deafness/hearing impairment 
  • Cognitive disability 
  • Other medical conditions  

If you’re concerned about food allergies or dietary restrictions while away from home (and possibly ordering meals in a foreign language), a little planning will ease your mind. Tour groups, airlines, hotels and restaurants can accommodate most requests with advance notice. And apps like Allergy Translation can help you make your diet needs known on-the-go.

5. What should I bring in my medical kit?

Once while hurrying out on a business trip to Bogotá in 2005, I forgot to pack my medicines. As I tried to replace them, I discovered that in different countries, drugs may be known by different brand names or aren’t available at all and require a substitute. It took me several days to track down pharmacies that understood what I needed and could deliver an appropriate replacement. Now I always travel with a written list of my prescriptions that includes brand and generic names and their function. I leave a copy at home with a family member in case they need to consult with my doctor.

Make sure your medical kit includes all the medicines you regularly use in their original packaging. This will help you clear customs and provide guidance to doctors overseas, if needed.  The kit should also include items you need to protect yourself where you travel, such as an inhaler, sunscreen, insect repellant, over-the-counter pain relievers and allergy/cold medicines, and a first-aid kit.

When asked about my favorite destination, I’m hard-pressed to choose just one. I’ve spent considerable time in Chile, especially Santiago, where my wife was born. I have a warm feeling for Thailand, where people always smile when they meet a stranger. One place I haven’t visited yet is Spain, which I hope to remedy in the next year. By being careful with my health when traveling, I have been able to enjoy these trips to the fullest. May your future travels bring you the same joy. Salud!


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About the author

Dr. Joel M. Jutkowitz has over 50 years of experience in international management with a concentration in Latin America, South and Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Ukraine. Currently, he is trying to recover from years of sitting behind a desk by exercising as often as he can.

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