These days, it might seem that the ubiquitous selfie, now considered deadlier than a shark bite, is responsible for the majority of life-threatening incidents suffered by tourists—in recent months, travelers have fallen victim to both crocodile attacks and death-defying falls in the name of getting that perfect shot. Yet despite being located all over the globe, emergency rooms tend to see the same issues come through their doors every day: stomach problems, chest pains, headaches, fevers, and coughs. And when it comes to travel destinations known for their mountain ranges or brilliant surf, for example, physicians working at emergency rooms are familiar with other ailments, too—those far more specific to their place on the planet.
Here, what travelers to Colorado, Central America, the Caribbean, and more, are up against.
Stings in the Sea
Where: The tropics
“In Hawaii, we see a lot of marine life stings and injuries,” says Howie Klemmer, M.D., the chief of emergency medicine at Queens Medical Centerin Honolulu. Yet, while (sometimes incredibly) painful, Klemmer says you can actually treat a jellyfish, rockfish, or Portuguese man-of-war sting—or a sea urchin-run-in—yourself.
Vinegar, for one, kills the venom-filled nematocysts [stinging cells] in a Portuguese man-of-war’s tentacles, he says, adding that most lifeguards in Hawaii carry vinegar-filled spray bottles and are trained in treating the stings. Just don’t rub or ice the area: “That causes the stinging cells to secrete more of the toxin,” he says.
As for a rockfish sting? That one will be particularly painful, Klemmer notes, but hot water (not scalding, but as hot as you can handle) will kill the toxins. If you’re in considerable pain or notice your pain getting worse, head to the ER to be safe.
It’s possible to pick up influenza anywhere. But, in general, thanks to concentrated, temperate cities in China and elsewhere across Asia, the flu spreads more easily, notes Christian Arbelaez, M.D., M.P.H., an emergency medicine doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts who has traveled the world with groups like Partners in Health and participated in disaster relief for events like Hurricane Katrina. In fact, doctors in the field tend to look to Asia to see what kinds of flus might be headed toward other parts of the globe, he notes. A flu shot is an important preventative health measure no matter where (or if) you’re traveling. General hygiene practices like hand-washing, or carrying a decent hand sanitizer with you, can play a big part in keeping you healthy, too.
Where: Latin America, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, the tropics
Zika, the mosquito-borne virus, made plenty of headlines this past year and in some places, it’s still a threat, says Arbelaez. In tropical areas, travelers are also more prone to other mosquito-borne illnesses, like West Nile, he notes. Pay attention to travel notices for Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses. Zika—which doesn’t always show symptoms—poses a particular threat to pregnant women or those that could potentially be pregnant and their sexual partners, he says. Those at risk should avoid travel to infected areas—thankfully, there are currently plenty of Zika-free destinations to choose from.
Of course, Zika isn’t the only thing to be aware of. Travelers are also prone to other mosquito-borne illnesses, like dengue fever, Arbelaez notes. Those traveling to a malaria zone should visit a travel clinic in advance for malaria tablets—make sure to start them as directed, usually a couple of days before you arrive at your destination. In addition, try to stay at places with air conditioning and window screens, opt for long sleeved shirts, and use an EPA-registered insect repellant. Travelers to Brazil take note: The country is currently experiencing a yellow fever outbreak, according to Arbelaez, so make sure to get vaccinated before you go.
Where: The mountains
“We are at 9,000-plus feet elevation, so we see a lot of people with acute mountain sickness,” Marc Doucette, M.D. the director of emergency medicine at St. Anthony’s Summit Medical Center in Frisco, Colorado says. If you’re in the mountains and notice a headache, nausea, difficulty sleeping, or shortness of breath, the high heights could be affecting you. (Docs also see more serious cases of altitude issues, called high-altitude pulmonary edema, when fluid develops in the lungs, he says.)
Keep altitude woes at bay by ascending slowly, suggests Doucette. Spend a night or two at 5,280 feet in Denver on your way up, for example. (You’ll be hard-pressed to leave the city’s Art Hotel.) Drink plenty of water and skip excess booze, too, he says.
And remember: “Having previously lived in the mountains or coming out here on a regular basis does not necessarily make you immune to altitude sickness.”
Where: Developing countries; cruise ships
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 30 to 70 percent of travelers come down with cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea—a.k.a. “traveler’s diarrhea”—from contaminated foods. High-risk areas for foodborne illnesses include parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America, the CDC says. Cruise ships—because of crowded quarters—can also be a hotbed for the stomach flu norovirus, notes Arbelaez (we all remember the headlines).
If you’re traveling to a high-risk destination, stick with bottled or boiled water, as H20 can be a huge source of contamination (and this includes foods, like salads and fruit, as well as ice cubes, that you might not think about), says Arbelaez. Make sure to visit a travel clinic before your trip for proper vaccinations and to ask about any preventative measures you can take (like filling preventative prescriptions). And if you’re off on a cruise, be vigilant about hand-washing.