Staying Healthy Abroad
Severe air pollution is a significant health concern in several major metropolises across the world. Students, staff and faculty who travel to places like Beijing, Mexico 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 “unhealthy” or “hazardous” levels, Northwestern personnel can mitigate against some of the ill effects by following the tips below:
- Be mindful of the possible health effects of air pollution (e.g. itchy eyes, throat or nose; coughing; trouble breathing; headaches; chest pain, etc.)
- Travelers with pre-existing respiratory illnesses will be more susceptible to serious health consequences from high levels of smog. Students, staff or faculty who have asthma are strongly recommended to consult with their personal physician for tailored health advice if traveling to an area with poor air quality
- There are several resources that can provide real-time air quality readings, including AirNow, StateAir, the World Health Organization, BeijingAir and AQICN
- When air quality levels are unhealthy, travelers should refrain from participating in vigorous outdoor exercise
- Air quality levels change depending on the season. In China, for example, pollution levels rise in the fall and winter months due to the increased burning of coal to warm residents’ homes
- Always follow local government advice
- Consider donning a facemask to reduce the amount of air particulates that may be inhaled. In order to filter 95 percent of pollution particles, travelers should use masks with a rating of N95 or above
- Monitor flight information for the latest updates on delays or cancellations
- If staying in a city with high levels of air pollution for an extended period of time, consider purchasing an air purifier for your accommodation site
- Have a basic understanding of pollution particulate matter 2.5, which is the fine pollutant monitored by air quality readings
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.
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.
The “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 new guide to Sexual Health Abroad available online or at Northwestern's Study Abroad Office.
“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.
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.
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.
Hot, humid environments are breeding grounds for the types of mosquitos that carry disease such as Chikungunya, Dengue Fever, Malaria, and Zika. Malaria is the only disease where the right prophylactic medication, taken properly, offers protection from infection. There are no cures for any of these diseases, and although the symptoms are not usually life-threatening for healthy individuals, they can be extremely uncomfortable and in some cases, have lasting effects. (For more information about Zika and travel, see the Emergency Messages page).
Preventing exposure to mosquito bites is important to reducing one’s risk of exposure. Before traveling, review the precautions to prevent mosquito bites prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and mosquito-bourne disease prevention tips from Arizona's Yavapai County Community Health Services.
The CDC also provides tips on insect repellant use and safety, including the recommendation that you should apply sunscreen before applying mosquito repellent.
If you are concerned about a risk of exposure to a mosquito-borne illness, contact a specialist in travel medicine, such as Northwestern Medicine’s Travel Medicine Clinic or Glenbrook Hospital’s Travel Clinic. Pregnant women, or women planning to become pregnant planning to travel to a country with active Zika transmission, should consult with their OB/GYN. Travelers who display any of the symptoms outlined below should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Chikungunya is most prevalent in South and Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Symptoms most associated with the virus are fever and joint pain. There is no vaccine to prevent the spread of chikungunya. Additional information on the virus can be found on the CDC’s website.
People who have contracted dengue typically experience symptoms similar to influenza. According to the World Health Organization, approximately half of the world’s population is at risk for dengue. The mosquito-borne viral infection is most commonly found in urban environments in tropical locations. Although there is no treatment for dengue, early detection can reduce mortality rates to below one percent.
According to data from the World Health Organization, over 90 countries have ongoing malaria transmission. However, most malaria cases are found in Africa, as the continent is home to 90 percent of reported cases. The first symptoms of malaria are normally fever, headache and chills.
The Zika virus is an illness with generally mild symptoms, including fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes), which can last several days to a week. Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat Zika, but symptoms are rarely severe and hospitalization is uncommon. Zika is spread by mosquitos and therefore most prevalent in tropical environments. Travelers can limit their exposure to Zika (and other mosquito-borne illnesses like Malaria, Dengue Fever and Chikungunya) by taking precautions to prevent mosquito bites.
Zika is linked to a specific birth defect called microcephaly. Because of this link, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed specific guidance for pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant, warning them to avoid visiting places where the virus is currently circulating. The CDC has also issued information about the risk of transmitting Zika through sexual contact. Note that some locations may offer a reduced chance of exposure to Zika due to high elevation.
The CDC’s Zika destinations page is the most up-to-date resource for determining risks of exposure based on location.