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How to Avoid Falling Sick While Travelling in Southeast Asia

A few self-care measures and some illness prevention can make the difference between a kickass trip and a trip that kicks your butt.

Here’s how to deal with…

Bites and Stings

Aside from transmitting serious disease, insect bites and stings can be painful and annoying and lead to skin infections.

What you can do
• If you are bitten, avoid scratching and apply hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to reduce itching.
• A sting-relief spray will ease symptoms and ice-packs will reduce pain and swelling.
• If a bee stings you and it leaves a stinger behind, remove the stinger with tweezers or scrape it off as quickly as possible.
• If you find a tick, remove it as soon as you can. Use fine-point tweezers to grab hold of the tick as close to the skin as possible. Gently pull the tick straight out (without twisting) with steady pressure, being careful to remove the whole tick. Seek medical advice in some countries, as ticks can carry diseases.
• Leeches may be present in damp rainforest conditions and attach themselves to your skin to suck your blood. Salt water or vinegar will cause an actively sucking leech to fall off.
• Once a tick or leech has been removed, clean the area with antiseptic or wash with soap and water. If the area of the bite or sting is very swollen, very red or you notice breathing difficulties, this could indicate an allergic reaction that will require urgent medical attention.
• If you are bitten, scratched or ticked by an animal in a rabies-infected country, you need treatment ASAP. Wash the wounds gently with soap and running water for five minutes – do not scrub; arrange for a post-bite rabies vaccine. Even if you were bitten a few days or weeks ago, it is never too late to be vaccinated. The rabies virus can incubate for several years before it causes symptoms. There is no treatment for established rabies – it is fatal. Yikes!

Fungal Skin Infections

Fungal infections occur more commonly in hot weather. These infections are usually found between toes (athlete’s foot), around the groin area and on the body (ringworm). Moisture encourages fungal skin infections, which means you are more likely to pick one up if you don’t dry your skin properly after bathing or if you are sweating a lot.

What you can do
To prevent fungal skin infections:

• Wash frequently and dry your skin carefully after bathing.
• Wear loose-fitting comfortable clothing.
• Choose socks and underwear that allow your skin to breathe
• Wash and change clothes and underwear, bed linens, and towels often, and dry well.
• Wear thongs (flip-flops) in communal change rooms and showers and around swimming pools.
• If you do get a fungal skin infection, keep the affected area clean and dry.
• Apply an antifungal cream or powder, following the directions on the pack.


Candida infections or vaginal thrush is common in hot, humid environments. Wearing tight clothing and synthetic materials can exacerbate the problem. Antibiotics, including the anti-malarial doxycycline, also predispose you to thrush.

What you can do
• Wearing cotton underwear may help prevent thrush.
• Medication (pessaries and cream) for the treatment of thrush is not always available so it might be worth packing some in your medical kit so you can treat it promptly.

Cystitis/Urinary Tract Infection

Some women experience cystitis (inflammation of the bladder) or urinary tract infections when travelling. This is often because people don’t drink enough water while travelling. These infections are most often caused by bacteria that are normally found in your colon and rectum.

What you can do
• As soon as you suspect you might have cystitis (symptoms include an urgent need to urinate more frequently, plus urination may be painful), increase your fluid intake – each time you empty your bladder, you wash out some of the bacteria causing the infection.
• Simple painkillers and drinking mixtures that change the acidity of your urine can be helpful. If these measures don’t do the trick in 24 hours, you’ll need to seek medical advice.
• Maintaining good personal hygiene and wearing loose-fitting clothes and cotton underwear can help prevent these infections.

No More Mozzies!
The best prevention for mosquito-borne illnesses is to limit your exposure to the pests. Wear long sleeves and cover your legs and use insect repellent when outside. Also, avoid hanging around stagnant water, if possible. Because mosquitos lay their eggs in water, any areas where rainwater may collect can pose some risk.

How Not to Get Sick on Your Trip

Take this advice to avoid these three serious concerns.

Two mosquito-borne illnesses common in parts of Southeast Asia are malaria and dengue fever. Both can be life-threatening if left untreated. In the case of malaria, when an infected mosquito bites you, it takes about a week for symptoms to develop. Classic symptoms: fever and a flu-like illness with muscle aches or abdominal pain, sometimes with vomiting or diarrhoea. If you’ll be travelling to a malarial zone, you’ll typically be recommended to take daily or weekly anti-malarial meds (talk to your doctor). As for the dengue virus, it’s carried by the Aedes mosquito, which only bites during the day. Like malaria, “dengue fever” takes days to develop and has flu-like symptoms. There is no prevention for dengue fever other than avoiding mosquito bites.

Traveller’s diarrhoea is the most common illness to strike travellers, and is usually caused by eating food or drinking water or ice contaminated with micro-organisms. How to prevent it? When it comes to food and drink: Boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it. Also, consider picking up Aquatabs water purification tablets ($6.20 for 50; www.guardian.com.sg for locations) to avoid water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

From The Singapore Women’s Weekly
Photo: 123RF.com

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