Bringing Home Illness From Overseas

Diarrhea, Malaria, Bug Bites, and Skin Disorders Are Among the Most Common Problems

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 11, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 11, 2006 -- International travel can be enriching, but a souvenir you don't want is an illness picked up overseas.

A team of doctors in Nepal, Germany, and the U.S. recently tracked diseases brought home by travelers who had visited developing countries. The travelers' most common diseases were:

  • Illnesses causing fever, such as malaria, dengue fever, and related illnesses.
  • Diarrheal illnesses, mostly from parasites.
  • Skin disorders, mostly from insect bites.
  • Gastrointestinal disorders besides diarrhea, such as liver infections.

The study by the University of Alabama's David Freedman, MD, and colleagues appears in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Far-Flung Findings

Freedman's study spanned the globe. Data came from 30 specialized clinics in six developing regions in the world.

Between 1996 and 2004, more than 17,000 people who had recently traveled overseas visited those clinics, complaining of health problems they'd picked up on the road.

Those people are a tiny slice of the world's travelers. About 763 million people crossed international borders in 2004, according to a journal editorial by David Hill, MD, DTM&H.

Hill directs the National Travel Health Network and Center in London. He's also an honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Hill's "DTM&H" credential notes his specialty: tropical medicine and hygiene. That field is more important than ever, Hill writes, since people flit from one side of the world to another for business or pleasure.

Keeping Travel Healthy

Packing your bags for an overseas trip? The CDC has an office devoted to healthy travel. Here are some tips from the CDC and the papers by Freedman and Hill:

  • Check in with your doctor or local health department at least four to six weeks before your trip.
  • Get any vaccinations recommended for your destination.
  • Take any prescriptions that you might need to prevent disease (such as antimalarial drugs) as directed.
  • Before your trip, pick up current health information about your destination. Ask your doctor or try the CDC Travelers' Health web site --
  • Don't eat raw or undercooked meat or seafood.
  • Don't eat raw fruits (like bananas or oranges) and vegetables unless you've peeled them yourself.
  • Avoid tap water, including ice made from tap water. Hot tea, coffee, and bottled drinks are safe.
  • Well-cooked foods and packaged foods, if handled properly, are usually safe.
  • Avoid foods and beverages sold by street vendors in unhygienic conditions.
  • If you're traveling back home to your native country, don't assume that your body can handle local germs.
  • Try to avoid bug bites.

Also, don't forget about safe sex. HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are worldwide problems; they don't take vacations.

Lastly, wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub to keep germs at bay. That habit also comes in handy at home, since infections can happen anywhere.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Freedman, D. The New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 12, 2006; vol 354: pp 119-130. Hill, D. The New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 12, 2006; vol 354: pp 115-117. CDC: "Planning for Healthy Travel." CDC: "Travelers' Diarrhea."

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