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How to travel safely

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May 21st, 2013
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You’ve worked hard all your life; now it’s time to retire and travel to your heart’s content. Older travelers may face some challenges, however, especially if they have health conditions. Proper preparation can help you enjoy your trip as well as keep you safe.

Before you leave

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that seniors see a doctor four to six weeks before they leave for their destination in order to have a physical examination. Along with assessing your physical fitness for travel and medical conditions, a doctor can assess your cognitive function if necessary. “Someone might be able to function fine in their home environment, but in an unfamiliar place, they may not do so well,” says Charles Ericsson, M.D., head of clinical infectious diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “This may be something that’s hard to admit for some people.”

Mental functioning needs to be taken into consideration, especially if a destination is prone to natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes.

Know information about where you are going that might affect your health. “If someone has heart or lung disease, they need to tell their doctor about the altitude of their destination, as well as how they are traveling there,” Ericsson says. “Even in a pressurized jet cabin, the change in altitude can be risky for some travelers with lung disease.”

Certain vaccinations could be necessary depending on where you’re going, such as hepatitis, polio, yellow fever, or typhoid. “Seniors need all the vaccinations that a younger traveler would need,” Ericsson says. “But they might be on chronic medications that could interfere with travel medications. Certain health conditions may also interfere. If you have kidney problems, taking certain antimalarial drugs can be a problem. In any case, you need to be especially vigilant about protecting yourself from mosquito bites by using insect repellants and wearing protective clothing when traveling in tropical climes where malaria is transmitted.

“People with immune system disorders may need different vaccinations or other means of protection than healthy people,” Ericsson continues. “The doctor needs to know about compromised immunity in advance.”

Routine vaccinations also need to be considered. Diseases that these protect against are often quite common in other countries. “You might need a tetanus booster, for example,” Ericsson says.

The CDC also recommends purchasing supplemental travel health insurance and evacuation insurance, which pays for emergency transport to a qualified hospital in case of an emergency.

At the airport

Although you are (hopefully) not at an airport for a long time, there are things to think about while you’re there. Nathan Wei, M.D., a board-certified rheumatologist from the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Md., gives this advice to his patients with arthritis: “Always use wheeled luggage. The less you carry over your shoulder, the better. Wear comfortable shoes, and notify the airline ahead of time if you’re going to need a wheelchair to get around.”

Many people advise that you pack medicine only in your carry-on bag, in case your checked bag is lost. Ericsson suggests another approach. “Carry-on bags sometimes get stolen, so take along a double supply—pack one set of medicines in your checked bag and one set in your carry-on bag. Have copies of prescriptions, passports, any pertinent health records, and your travel itinerary in both places, too.”

While you’re on the airplane, protect yourself from dangerous blood clots that can form in your legs. “Wear pressure gradient stockings, which you can buy at a drugstore,” Ericsson says. “Move around in the cabin if at all possible, and drink plenty of fluids.”

At your destination

Jet lag may be a problem for some people, and it can be hard on seniors. “Some people may benefit from sleeping pills, but use the lowest dose that is still effective. The most important thing to remember about jet lag is that you will get over it,” Ericsson says.

Another common but fairly minor problem that can ruin a vacation is traveler’s diarrhea. “You can arm yourself with antidiarrheal medicine to treat the malady, and antibiotics can be given to prevent the syndrome when the risk is high. It is important to prevent dehydration, especially if you are taking diuretics,” Ericsson says. “Keep plenty of fluids around.”

Dealing with these annoyances and protecting yourself against infectious diseases is certainly important, but guarding against injury should be a primary goal when you’re traveling. “Trauma is the most common cause of death in travelers to developing countries,” Ericsson says. “In many cases, safety laws are different than in the U.S. Especially if you have any type of infirmity that affects your mobility, you have to think about how you’re going to get around safely.”

Driving a rental car is one example. “This can be risky in a place where the laws are different, you might not be able to read the road signs, you don’t know the lay of the land, and your reflexes aren’t as good as they used to be,” Ericsson explains.

There’s safety in numbers. “Traveling in a group is always a wise idea,” Ericsson says. “You can watch out for one another’s safety and health.”


Protect yourself from injury while on vacation

According to the CDC, seniors can minimize their risk of serious injuries by adhering to these guidelines:

• Wear seatbelts

• Avoid riding in cars after dark, especially in developing countries

• Don’t travel to areas that are not safe, especially at night

• Avoid riding in small local planes

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