Skip to main content

Staying Healthy Abroad

Air Pollution

Severe air pollution is a significant health concern in several major metropolises across the world. Students, staff and faculty who travel to places like BeijingMexico City or New Delhi will likely encounter days when air particulates are dense, causing potential travel disruptions and increased health risks. 

When air quality readings reach Air Quality Index (AQI) ratings of “unhealthy” or “hazardous” levels, Northwestern travelers can mitigate against some of the ill effects by following the tips below: 

  • Know the possible health effects of air pollution (e.g. itchy eyes, throat or nose; coughing; trouble breathing; headaches; chest pain, etc.) and the impact of seasonal changes 
  • Consult with your personal physician if traveling to an area with poor air quality as travelers with pre-existing respiratory illness will be more susceptible to serious health consequences from high levels of smog  
  • Monitor air quality readings provided by AirNow or AQICN 
  • Refrain from vigorous outdoor exercise when air quality levels are unhealthy 
  • Consider donning a facemask with a rating of N95 or above to reduce the amount of air particulates that may be inhaled 
  • Monitor flight information for the latest updates on delays or cancellations 
  • consider purchasing an air purifier for your accommodation site for long-term stays abroad 

Alcohol and Drugs

Travelers should avoid illegal drugs and use good judgment if choosing to consume alcohol. Illicit drugs are illegal in most countries in the world, with very severe penalties. Alcohol may be consumed legally at a much younger age in most countries abroad, but it is important to consume it safely. Learn more about drug and alcohol use abroad.

Eating, Drinking and Sleeping

An important part of maintaining good health abroad is eating and drinking properly – stay hydrated! Remember that in addition to the cultural and emotional adjustments, your body will be adjusting to a new climate, new time zone, new food, etc. and eating right, exercising and getting rest will help ease that adjustment.

Healthy Relationships

Sexual Health Abroad booklet coverThe “rules” of dating vary from culture to culture. It is important that you consider your behavior and inform yourself as best as possible about how dating and relationships generally function in your host culture.


Remember, HIV and other STIs are prevalent everywhere in the world. To protect yourself, do not have unprotected sex. We strongly recommend that travelers pack condoms, just in case, since they are not always widely available overseas. Overall, we encourage all travelers to be cautious about their sexual activity while abroad. Learn more about healthy sexuality from CARE or the guide to Sexual Health Abroad available at Northwestern's Global Learning Office. 

High Altitudes

“High altitude" generally describes locations 8,000 feet above sea level and higher; however, altitude sickness can impact anyone traveling from one altitude to a notably higher one. Awareness is necessary because at this elevation oxygen levels are lower and can cause difficulties for travelers. Many higher-altitude tourist destinations, particularly those for trekking and adventure sports, are remote and may lack access to medical care. For more information, read a report on traveling in high altitudes from the U.S. Department of State.

High Heat Levels

Travelers accustomed to the relatively cool climate of Evanston may have difficulty adjusting to tropical or desert environments known for high temperatures or humidity. Dehydration is a real and serious risk for travelers, so be sure to have enough cool water on hand to stay hydrated. Try to complete activity-intensive tasks in the morning or early evening when the sun is less direct, and don’t forget to wear a wide-brimmed hat! For more information, read a report on travel and the dangers of excessive heat  by the U.S. Department of State.

Intense Sunlight 

It’s never too early to start protecting yourself from skin cancer. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, and repeated exposure to ultraviolet (UV rays) increased one’s risk. Regular application of sunscreen can block these harmful rays. The Mayo Clinic recommends that lotions or sprays with an SPF of 30 are sufficient, when applied properly (and reapplied after two hours, especially after swimming for long durations). Read more about these recommendations on the Clinic’s website at Best Sunscreens: Understanding Your Options. Bear in mind that research from Northwestern indicated that even the top-selling brands of sunscreen may not offer adequate protection. Read those labels carefully!

Travelers can take other steps to prevent overexposure to sunlight, including wearing a hat as well as lightweight, light-colored clothing that covers the arms and legs. For those who need to spend several hours in direct sun collecting samples or conducting field research, it may be worth investing in some sun-protective clothing.