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3 Common Misconceptions about Travel Health

travel health misconceptions
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If you spend anytime in hostel common rooms, especially in developing world areas, you will likely hear your share of tales that involve accidents, illness, and sometimes worse. You will also likely hear your fair share of medical advice from people who claim to know what they are talking about.

As a result, there are many people who think that tonic water can prevent malaria. There are others who believe that if they drink enough alcohol then any and all harmful organisms in their bloodstream will surely be vanquished (this may actually work for fruit flies, though). In this post, we will break down some of the most common misconceptions that surround travel health.

Malaria is variously no big deal or something you will have for life

I’d say about half the travelers I meet are deathly afraid of malaria. They will tell me that malaria is for life and that the spectre of cerebral malaria looms in every mosquito. The other half will tell me that I shouldn’t bother with prophylactics and that malaria is no big deal. Who’s right? The question should be who is less wrong and the answer is it’s hard to tell.

The fact is that malaria is a different disease in different destinations. There are multiple strains, multiple prophylactics, multiple treatment options. If someone just got back from a trip to Asia and you are planning a trip to Africa, you don’t want to listen to them when it comes to malaria advice. For more on this, please see our article on malaria myths and facts.

You have a parasite

Ok, you could have a parasite. It’s possible. But it could also be very unlikely, depending on where you are traveling. Many people self-diagnose parasites because they experience vague stomach symptoms over a considerable period of time. Coupled with fatigue, these symptoms can easily lead you to believe that you have a parasite. What’s more, your brain can start working overtime, manifesting symptoms by imagination.

In many cases, however, the “parasite” is a bacterial infection, one that can be defeated by your body (with or without assistance from an antibiotic like cipro). Now, if you have been spending significant time in a rural area where parasites are endemic, and you have been drinking local water sources without treating them, you may actually have a parasite. Fortunately, that scenario is not true for many people who think they have a parasite.

Probiotics will prevent traveler’s diarrhea

We at Sick on the Road are actually fans of probiotics and — largely from anecdotal evidence — believe that they can have a positive effect when it comes to avoiding certain intestinal ailments. But the fact is that traveler’s diarrhea is usually caused by bacteria that may be particularly foreign to your system. We’d like to think that loading up on probiotics can help your body form an impenetrable wall, but it’s simply not the case. You’d have more success by focusing on making smart choices with respect to what you eat and drink.

As always, it’s important to remember that we are not doctors. The information on this site is a combination of research and 1st hand experience. It is no substitute for visiting a doctor and/or having a consultation at a travel health clinic. Talking to a clinical nurse leader can help you find out if you are indeed suffering from a parasite or if it is only bacteria.

Photo credit: flickr user toastforbrekkie

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{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Nico @ ATravellersJourney November 27, 2012, 11:09 pm

    Some good advice, especially about malaria, which is a source of confusion for travellers. Dengue Fever is also something that people should watch out for and is easily and often confused with malaria because it shares many of the same symptoms and characteristics.

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