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Tropical illness: How to stay healthy while travelling abroad

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Heading to somewhere tropical? Lucky you! From the beaches of Thailand to a Kenyan safari, there’s plenty to be excited about when planning a far off adventure. But as well as your itinerary and packing list, you’ll need to prepare for tropical illnesses too.

There’s a varied list of ‘local diseases’ that reside in the tropics. But don’t worry - with the right prevention and vaccinations, you can ensure protection throughout your trip.

Here’s everything you need to know about tropical illnesses including the most common diseases and how to avoid them.

What is a tropical illness?

A tropical illness is a disease that thrives in a hot, humid climate such as Africa, Asia and Latin America. Otherwise known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), they are often spread due to poor living conditions such as a lack of clean water and sanitation, and are caused by a mixture of pathogens such as bacteria, fungi and parasites.

Tropical illnesses impact more than one billion people worldwide, often in rural areas where there is a higher rate of impoverished conditions.

What are the most common tropical illnesses?

There are 20 types of tropical disease, each of which have differing symptoms and ways of being transmitted. The most common tropical illnesses are:

Dengue fever

Dengue is a virus spread by Aedes mosquitoes found in tropical climates including Asia and the Caribbean. It is normally mild, with sudden symptoms occurring within 5-8 days such as a high temperature, joint pain, a severe headache and nausea. In rare cases, it can progress to dengue hemorrhagic fever, causing bleeding from the nose or mouth.

Malaria

Similar to dengue, malaria is spread by mosquitoes but symptoms can sometimes appear months after travel. These include a high temperature, fatigue, diarrhoea, headaches and muscle pain. It can lead to life-threatening complications so malaria prevention is highly recommended when visiting high-risk areas. This includes antimalarial tablets and bite avoidance such as insect repellent.

Rabies

Rabies is very rare but has extremely serious consequences. It is usually a fatal infection that impacts the brain and nerves, leading to confusion, hallucinations, muscle spasms or paralysis. Rabies is caught from the bite or scratch of an infected animal, most commonly dogs found in Asia, Africa and South America.

Chagas disease

Typically found in Latin America, Chagas disease is most commonly transmitted by triatomine bugs that live in mud, thatch roofs and straw. It is a mild condition that doesn’t always present symptoms however can cause heart and digestive issues if left untreated. Flu-like symptoms or swollen eyelids are the most common signs of Chagas disease.

Schistosomiasis

Commonly known as bilharzia, this disease is caused by worms that live in freshwater such as lakes and waterfalls. It’s often found in parts of Africa, the Caribbean and South East Asia. Symptoms don’t often show as the parasite can remain in the body for years - although you may notice small, itchy red bumps.

Other common tropical diseases include:

  • Buruli Ulcer
  • Chikungunya
  • Dracunculiasis
  • Echinococcosis
  • Foodborne Trematodiases
  • African trypanosomiasis
  • Leishmaniasis
  • Leprosy
  • Lymphatic Filariasis
  • Mycetoma
  • Onchocerciasis
  • Scabies
  • Soil-Transmitted Helminths
  • Snakebite envenoming
  • Taeniasis/cysticercosis
  • Trachoma
  • and Yaws

How to prevent tropical illnesses

Good hygiene and sanitation is key to preventing tropical illnesses, but there are also a number of travel products that can help to stop you getting ill. Here are the best measures to take when travelling:

  • Ensure you have up to date travel vaccinations such as Hepatitis A & B, Typhoid, Rabies, Yellow Fever and Japanese Encephalitis
  • Drink and wash your teeth with clean, bottled water
  • Wear protective or long clothing
  • Clean your hands before eating or preparing food
  • Wear insect repellent and avoid wearing fragrance
  • Wash and peel fruit and vegetables
  • Sleep under a mosquito net
  • Take probiotics to help prevent stomach viruses

Check what vaccines you need

Are there treatments for tropical illnesses?

There are various treatments for tropical diseases that may include antibiotics, antivirals or anti-parasitics. The prescribed treatment will depend on the type of illness and bacteria.

If you present any symptoms or feel unwell after travel, speak to your doctor. They will check your blood, urine and throat, and may also conduct a biopsy or scan to help diagnose the condition.

How to stay healthy whilst travelling

There’s nothing worse than being sick on holiday and missing out on your carefully made plans. Aside from tropical diseases, there are many things that can cause discomfort abroad so make sure to look after yourself using the below tips:

  • Eat fresh foods that have been prepared in a sanitary environment and avoid any ingredients that have been left out in the sun
  • Wear sunscreen and don’t spend all day in the sunshine
  • Go easy on alcohol, particularly in the day when you’re most at risk of burning or getting dehydrated
  • Drink plenty of clean water and avoid ice cubes
  • Carry hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes
  • Pack tablets for diarrhoea and rehydration as a part of your travel essentials
  • Bring a first aid kit
  • Wear bug repellent during the day and night
  • Get enough sleep and rest

Tropical illnesses are serious business but can easily be avoided with the right prevention methods. Use our vaccination checker to find out what injections you’ll need for your destination and talk to our pharmacy team to find out whether malaria prophylaxis are required.

Want to make sure your health is in tip top condition before travel? Discover the best ways to boost your immune system including the best vitamins, minerals and supplements to add to your daily routine.

References

www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/neglected-tropical-diseases
www.nhs.uk/conditions/dengue
www.nhs.uk/conditions/rabies
www.cdc.gov/parasites/chagas/index.html
www.nhs.uk/conditions/schistosomiasis