Even a minor health problem can spoil a vacation, and a major one can make you regret ever leaving home.
Of course, there are no guarantees, but taking a few precautions can improve your odds for a medically uneventful trip. International travelers should visit www.cdc.gov/travel for information about vaccinations, disease outbreaks and the like, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While you're on the CDC site, check out the Yellow Book, the CDC's reference book for international travelers. Even if you're not leaving the U.S., it has useful information about everything from altitude sickness to sunburn.
To get some practical, health-related vacation tips, we contacted several well-traveled members of the Health Letter editorial board and consulted a few other sources. Here are a few suggestions:
*Mind your feet. Especially if it's a sightseeing or hiking vacation, you're going to be spending more time on your feet than you do at home. Plain old sore feet, blisters and more serious conditions like plantar fasciitis are hazards. Good, sensible shoes are the first line of defense (rubber soles are often recommended). Moleskin and small Band-Aids can keep blisters from hobbling you completely. Leave those old, worn-out socks at home; some new pairs can reduce the friction that causes blisters and provide some extra padding.
*Don't mess with your meds. If you're taking medications at home, make sure you pack enough of them to last the entire vacation. Even if your destination is no more exotic than Cape Cod, you don't want to squander valuable vacation time chasing down your doctor to call in a prescription to an unfamiliar drugstore that might be miles away.
Some people are tempted to combine a "drug holiday" with their work holiday. That's a really bad idea. Abruptly quitting a drug can cause all sorts of problems that you don't want to be dealing with when you should be enjoying yourself.
If you're traveling overseas, especially to a developing country, the CDC advises leaving your medications in their original containers and making sure they're clearly labeled. Customs officials in some countries may ask you to identify your meds and what they're for.
If you want to be extra cautious, get a doctor's note on letterhead listing your medications, including their generic names, and what they're for. Also pack an ample supply of your medications in your carry-on luggage in case checked bags get lost or arrive late.
Overseas travelers should also find out any possible interactions between their medications and those they might need to take for problems not encountered at home, such as traveler's diarrhea and malaria.
*Seek sound sleep. Just being in a strange bed in a new place can make it hard to sleep. So can extra alcohol and heavier meals, temptations we often yield to when we're away. Plane travel can cause jet lag. For these reasons and others, taking sleep aids on vacation can be a good idea. Over-the-counter antihistamines like diphenhydramine (sold as Benadryl and as a generic) do the trick for many people. But some people have a strong reaction to the drug and are groggy the next day. Try diphenhydramine at home before your vacation to see how you react. Older people are discouraged from using diphenhydramine because of the risk of falls and mental confusion.
Melatonin, the "sleep hormone," is another sleep aid people use, often for jet lag. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate how melatonin is made, so you can't be sure about the content of melatonin supplements.
*Screen your sun worship. Dermatologists may cringe, but who doesn't seek out extra sun while on a summer vacation? That makes sunscreen on vacation all the more important, especially if you have pale skin and are suddenly exposing it to a lot of sunshine. Sunscreen is readily available most places, but international travelers may want to arrive with enough for their stay. Even those going to less exotic locales should stock up and keep a small tube of sunscreen handy for quick, occasional application to vulnerable body parts like the nose and ears.
*Back up your eyesight. Some people who wear contact lenses need to switch to glasses when they travel to a city with air pollution problems. No matter where you're going, bring backup lenses or glasses and a photocopy of your vision prescription. It will be much easier to replace lost or damaged lenses -- or glasses -- if you do.
*Pack the Purell or some other hand sanitizer. Many infections are spread through hand-to-mouth transmission. Vacations can put you in some pretty germy places. You may also end up doing things that get your hands dirtier than usual. Soap and clean water can be hard to find, especially if you're traveling off the beaten path. If you're flying, you'll have to abide by a 3.4-ounce (100-milliliter) limit for any containers you pack in your carry-on luggage.