Following simple things can help travelers avoid situations and conditions that can lead to injury or sickness. Dive travelers have come up with a list of tips based on observations for the past 20 years. This includes avoiding drinking local water, eating raw fish and extreme air-conditioning.
Travel, of any kind, involves a small degree of risk. This is because you are leaving your home and familiar surroundings – temporarily changing your lifestyle and normal routine. Overseas travel involves a greater degree of risk because you are much farther from home, often immersed in a foreign land, with a culture and language much different than your own.
Getting sick or injured while traveling overseas is a scary experience. You feel very much alone and afraid you will not get the help or care you require. The best medicine is, of course, prevention – avoiding the conditions and causes that might result in sickness.
Needless to say, diving has its share of pitfalls – those tiny incidents and subtle situations that can lead to injury or sickness. Most dive travel accidents we see are minor injuries or discomforts but they can make your life miserable. A head cold or ear infection can bring your diving to an abrupt halt. Staying out in the sun too long or clumsily bumping against sharp coral can result in painful skin irritation or infection.
Most travel mishaps are the result of ignorance – not being aware of possible hazards or prepared to sidestep them. Based on observations of dive travelers for the past 20 years, here are 12 hints on avoiding the most common travel injuries and illnesses.
1 GET PLENTY OF SLEEP. From what we have observed, fatigue is the number one destroyer of a happy and pleasant dive trip. Overseas travel is often a grueling experience, with long, tedious flights and endless waiting in airports. Some transpacific trips can take 20 to 30 hours. Needless to say, these long trips can affect how you feel. Fatigue manifests itself in many ways: headaches, nausea, weariness, crankiness, short temper, diarrhea, heartburn, stomach upset or a general unwell feeling.
The best way to deal with travel fatigue is to start the trip well rested and in good shape. Instead of staying up until midnight, packing your dive gear, make sure you get a good night’s sleep prior to departure. During the trip, rest as much as possible. For example, when you finally arrive at your hotel, take a nap instead of immediately going off on a frenetic sightseeing tour.
2 DRINK PLENTY OF WATER. Dehydration is another hazard of airline travel and is more serious than fatigue. Dehydration can cause an intense feeling of sickness and even collapse. Classic symptoms include headache, nausea and other flu-like symptoms. The major problem with dehydration is that you don’t realize it is happening. In the beginning there are no outward signs.
Dehydration results from not drinking enough water during your travel. Commercial airline cabins are not only pressurized, they also circulate super dry air. When you inhale and exhale this air, it draws the moisture out of your lungs.
In order to avoid dehydration, you must replace the water loss. Drink at least one glass of water every hour you are in the air. If it is a five hour flight, that means five glasses of water – one for each hour.
3 AVOID ALCOHOL WHEN FLYING. Dehydration is accelerated by drinking alcohol or caffeinated coffee. Avoid these beverages when you are in the air. Drink water instead.
4 REST AFTER A LONG FLIGHT. Long overseas flights often result in crossing several time zones. This means a change in the times of sunrise and sundown – the body’s two most important stimuli for sleeping and waking. These changes disrupt your internal clock.
Your body wants to stay on its normal “home time” while you want to get up and go to sleep at entirely different times. As a result, the body becomes confused and rebellious. You find yourself wide awake in your hotel room at 4:00 am. During the day, you have a hard time staying awake in the early afternoon. More serious manifestations of jet lag can include headaches, nausea, dizziness and so on.
The best advice for dealing with jet lag is to get a lot of rest with alternate periods of exercise. One technique that often helps is to change your home time schedule gradually over a period of one week, just prior to your trip. If you intend to travel east, start getting up one hour earlier each day – until you match the time zone to which you will be traveling.
5 AVOID DRINKING LOCAL WATER. No doubt you have heard the old travel axiom, “don’t drink the water.” This implies local water may be contaminated with a bacteria known as E. coli. Poor sanitary conditions or broken sewer lines can result in this kind of contamination. The result can be very unpleasant – consisting of frequent and repeated diarrhea, stomach cramps and vomiting.
However, many cases of stomach upset and diarrhea are mistakenly diagnosed as tourista when they are actually the result of travel fatigue and dehydration. If the symptoms disappear in 12 to 24 hours, it is not likely to be tourista.
Avoiding tourista depends largely on abstinence – don’t drink the local water and avoid eating any fresh vegetables or fruits that have been washed with local water. Instead, purchase and drink only bottled water (mineral water) and eat canned fruits and vegetables. If you are drinking a soda or bottled beverage, be sure to wipe the top of the bottle clean before putting it to your lips. Another hidden source of E. coli bacteria is ice cubes made with local water. Freezing does not destroy the bacteria. Also, brush your teeth with bottled water – not tap water.
6 AVOID EXTREME AIR-CONDITIONING. Ironically, one of the major sources of diver problems in tropical climates is the very thing you pay big bucks for – air-conditioning in your hotel room. This is particularly true if the air-conditioner is set too cold and the nighttime temperature drops to a chilly 65 |degrees~ F or so.
Air-conditioning can raise havoc with a diver’s sinuses, nose and throat. Membrane linings swell up, causing congestion, stuffiness and blockage. As a result, the diver finds it very hard to equalize during descent – causing the dive to be aborted.
The best way to avoid air-conditioning hazards is to sleep without it. Cool the room off during the day and shut off the air-conditioner during the night. Ceiling fans often provide sufficient cooling at night. If the room is too hot and you must have air-conditioning, set the thermostat to a moderate temperature – midway on the scale. Avoid turning your room into a refrigerator.
7 USE EARPLUGS TO SLEEP BETTER. One of the subtle effects of travel is the difficulty in getting to sleep or staying asleep. The change of bed and room environment often disturbs normal sleep. This situation can rob you of much needed sleep. Diving is a demanding activity and requires a full night of peaceful sleep.
One of the worst hazards of hotel rooms is room noise – sounds you would not normally hear back home. If you are not used to having an air-conditioner running in your bedroom, it can be a nightmare. Other sounds intruding on your sleep may be coming from outside – loud music at the bar, crowing roosters, barking dogs or braying donkeys.
The best protection from room noise is a set of foam earplugs. These sound muffling devices are available at most drugstores. Some travelers effectively mask disturbing noises by carrying along a white noise machine. This little device (used both at home and away) creates a constant but pleasant noise that blocks out any other sound that might be disruptive.
8 USE INSECT REPELLENT. Many tropical resort hotels are designed with lovely balconies or poolside patios where guests can relax and enjoy the late afternoon beauty of a sunset. As day moves to night, the temperature cools and most guests want to go outside to enjoy the moment. Unfortunately, this tranquil part of the day is also feeding time for insects.
Traveling divers should take extra precautions to avoid insect bites whenever possible. The combination of saltwater immersion, tropical heat and high humidity can turn these little bites into festering sores. In certain parts of the diving world, mosquito bites can lead to more serious problems such as malaria or dengue fever.
Always carry an ample supply of insect repellent such as Deet. While it may not smell very pleasant, such a repellent can be effective if applied on all exposed areas of the body. Avoid going outside (especially at the beach) during the two hour period of sunset or sunrise. This is the most active period for most insects.
9 AVOID EATING RAW FISH. While you may be a fan of the sushi bar in your home town, avoid eating raw fish during your overseas travel. Even freshly caught fish (just hours out of the water) can contain worms, parasites or poisons that are extremely debilitating.
Health and inspection regulations here in the U.S. are quite strict but this may not be the case in a third world country or a small tropical island. Raw fish (sashimi or ceviche) can contain parasites that can get into your intestinal tract and remain there. Thoroughly cooking the fish is the only way to be 100 percent sure it has no parasites.
10 BE SURE YOUR FOOD IS WELL COOKED. If you have ordered a hamburger, meat patty or any other type of ground meat dish, make sure the meat has been thoroughly cooked. Beef and veal must be cooked throughout in order to ensure that any E. coli bacteria has been killed. Pork products must be cooked throughout in order to eradicate any parasites. Also make sure barbecued or fried chicken has been cooked all the way through. There should be no red juices or blood visible. This is the only way to prevent food poisoning.
11 AVOID WALKING BAREFOOT. We all have romantic fantasies of kicking off our shoes and playing Huckleberry Fin. It is very tempting to stroll barefoot on the beach or explore an uninhabited tropical island. Yet this temptation can lead to a painful foot injury. Since we wear shoes most of our lives, our feet are not conditioned for barefoot exploration.
Always wear protective footwear, whether walking on land, crossing a beach or wading out to the dive boat. Beaches and tropical islands are veritable minefields of sharp stones, nails, chips of broken glass, wood splinters, sharp thorns, broken shells and so on. These hazards can cause punctures or cuts that result in painful infections. There is even the risk of tetanus from such a wound. You can also burn the soles of your feet by walking on sun baked asphalt or super-heated sand.
If you plan to explore an island, wear a good pair of hard soled hiking shoes. If you are going beach combing, wear sandals, tennis or jogging shoes. If you are wading out to a boat, put on your dive boots (hard sole type) or a pair of old sneakers.
12 CARE FOR MINOR CUTS AND SCRATCHES. People who are active in outdoor sports are prone to minor cuts and scratches. These can come from a simple walk through heavy brush or an accidental slip on a dive boat. It is the kind of scrape most people hardly notice and seldom bother to treat. Yet when you are traveling in a tropical climate, even the slightest injury can turn into a serious infection.
No matter how small the scratch or scrape, treat the injury as soon as possible. Clean the area with soap and water, apply an antibiotic cream and cover with a bandage. Check the injury each night before going to bed and replace the old bandage with a fresh one. Preventing an infection is far easier than treating one.
By following these few simple suggestions, you can greatly improve your odds of staying completely healthy during your entire diving vacation. A happy diver is a healthy diver.