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  • Writer's pictureCFP Travel Medicine

What is Travel Medicine?

Learn about this vital part of preparing for your next international trip.

Photo of a globe on a table.
Image from Kyle Glenn at https://unsplash.com/@kylejglenn

Travel medicine, also known as emporiatrics, is a discipline and field of medicine that seeks to prepare travelers with knowledge and information about their destination, protect travelers from risks through knowledge and preventative care in the form of vaccinations, medications, and other preventative steps, and care for travelers once they return from their travels.


Travel medicine typically involves international travelers, meaning someone traveling from their home country to a foreign country for various purposes. An international traveler may encounter unfamiliar insects and food that can transmit exotic infectious diseases, like malaria or typhoid fever. They may travel to different and riskier climates and environments posing unusual risks, like altitude sickness at high elevations. They may experience different cultures and customs that can cause discomfort and possibly safety concerns. They may even encounter common things, like dogs, or “cute” things, like monkeys, that pose much higher risks for rabies than may be found in their home country or for which they do not perceive risk.


However, travel medicine can certainly also include domestic travel. For example, consider an individual from Florida in the southeast United States traveling for two weeks to high in the Rocky Mountains in the western United States. Concerns for this traveler may consist of acute mountain sickness (or even worse progressions, such as high-altitude pulmonary edema [HAPE] and high-altitude cerebral edema [HACE]).


 

As previously mentioned, there are three main aspects to travel medicine: preparing the traveler, protecting the traveler, and providing medical care for the traveler upon return.


Preparation


Preparation includes providing travelers with information about where they are traveling and risks present in those locations, including infectious disease, insects and larger animals, crime and safety, and other health and safety concerns. This can be done through a pre-travel health consultation where the travel medicine provider meets with the traveler either in-person or virtually to discuss the trip itinerary and planned activities considering the traveler’s medical history, current medications, and risk tolerance. Here, sound guidance is provided, such as proper clothing and the use of insect repellents and permethrin for insect precautions and what foods with which one should be cautious.


For example, there is a different risk profile in an older traveler with a suppressed immune system traveling to parts of the Amazon basin or sub-Saharan Africa compared with a younger individual with no medical history. Regions within countries or continents may have different risks. Consider the difference in risk between staying only in Bogotá, Colombia in deluxe accommodations with traveling to Colombia’s rainforests and sleeping in tents. Or consider the difference between traveling to Sierra Leone with traveling to Kenya. Different insects pose different infectious disease risks in different parts of the world. Thus, the preparation is based on the needs, abilities, and situation of the traveler.

Protecting


Protecting travelers not only entails providing timely and relevant information to the traveler regarding the risks present in their itinerary, but also includes providing recommended or required vaccinations, as well as prescriptions for recommended medications, to offer a level of protection to the traveler against diseases and problematic health conditions. Yellow fever vaccination is required for entry by certain countries. Even if a country does not typically require yellow fever vaccination, they may if an individual travels there directly from a country with risk of yellow fever. Other vaccines may include typhoid fever, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, and rabies vaccines. Common medications include an antimalarial for prevention of malaria, an antibiotic for treatment of severe travelers’ diarrhea, and a medication to help someone acclimate quicker to high altitudes. Of course, the recommendation of other medications can be discussed with the provider at the pre-travel health consultation.

Medical Care Once You Return Home


Medical care for returning travelers is provided if the traveler either becomes sick while on their trip or becomes sick once they are back at home. This may involve having a physical exam and diagnostic tests, as well as referring to a specialist for further care. Fever is a major symptom to watch for after returning from an overseas trip (or to monitor during travels if traveling for a long duration). For example, if a traveler develops a fever once returned from travel to parts of South America, Africa, or Asia, malaria should be suspected and ruled out.


 

Travel medicine practitioners should be trained in these aspects and continue to stay updated with new and relevant information. They should have access to current and relevant information for any destination to which a traveler desires to travel. If a location is so remote or unusual where current information may be lacking, the travel medicine practitioner should be familiar with general concerns and confident in guiding the traveler through these concerns.


Hopefully it is now clear why it is important to seek care from a travel medicine provider prior to one’s travel. Some travelers may not know such a service exists. Some may think they are invincible and do not require these services. However, meeting with a qualified travel medicine provider may not only provide peace of mind, but also practical ways to stay safe and healthy while enjoying our vast and intriguing world.


(This article was written by a human, not A.I. Feel free to share it with others.)

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