When I chat to people about our travels – especially to less developed places – one of the first things they often want to know is whether I worry about the kids getting sick. And the answer, of course, is yes. Yes, I do, and you should as well. I mean, have you read the travellers’ health section of any decent guidebook lately? They can pick up everything from malaria to encephalitis to weird, wormy parasites that burrow their way through internal organs and breed in boils under the skin.
But there is a difference between (pun alert) a healthy concern and an overwhelming fear. An overwhelming fear stops your family from having fun and educational experiences together and denies you the opportunity to teach them a thing or two about travelling safely whilst they are still young enough to see you as some sort of omniscient god.
On the other hand, a healthy concern prompts you to discuss your travel plans well in advance with your doctor, educate yourself about the diseases you might encounter, get your pre-trip preventative care (such as vaccinations), and learn practical methods you can use to reduce your family’s risk of disease on your particular journey. Worry? Yes, but I try to worry productively and proportionately.
Here are a few of the more general things we’ve learnt which have helped keep us all safe and healthy. I really meant it about discussing your travel plans with your doctor, though.
Slip, slop, slap (slurp, seek, slide, etc)
Wherever you travel, you’re likely to spend a lot more time outdoors than you usually do, whether it’s playing on the beach, climbing a mountain, tramping between museums, riding open-top sightseeing buses, or just sitting out on the piazza enjoying your coffee and wine whilst your child lies, passed out from exhaustion, in the stroller. So remember to slip on a shirt, slop on suncream, slap on a hat, slide on some sunnies, seek shade and slurp on a few drinks (the rehydrating kind – especially if you’re partial to coffee and wine).
Teach your kids something about handwashing techniques
And get them to practise up well before the trip. I usually pack one of those little bottles of antiseptic hand gel – you know, the alcohol-based type – but here’s the shocking truth about them, and it’s not that kids can get dangerously drunk if you don’t guard them safely. The truth is, they’re not a substitute for a good hand-washing technique.
In a contest between good, old-fashioned soap and water – correctly utilised – and a bit of a rub with some antiseptic, I will take the old-fashioned soap and water every time. I reserve the antiseptic solution for when I’m stuck for better options, and even then there’s a knack to it.
The CDC has advice about hand washing here.
I have always stuck by these old traveller’s rules and they have always served me well – except the bit against street food, which I find can be amongst the safest options, provided you stick to these guidelines (I like being able to clearly assess the whole operation before placing an order, and I feel safer eating at places which rely on repeat custom from locals).
The only thing I’d add when it comes to kids is it helps to relax about the variety in their diet for the duration of the trip. Make safe eating the priority. They are not going to get scurvy on a one to two week holiday because the only foods you can agree on are toast, hard-boiled eggs, and freshly-peeled bananas. None of these foods are actually junk, and it’s best to take a longer-term view of the amount of variety in their diet – it will all balance out over the course of the month, and the exposure to different food cultures will eventually do more to expand their palates than it takes away.
Watch the water.
This includes the water you drink, the ice in your cup, and also the stuff your kids use to brush their teeth, bathe in and swim in. (I don’t know what makes bathwater so tasty at home, but you might want to switch to supervised showering or quick bird baths when on the road.)
In one way, mosquitoes are morally neutral insects trying to get on with their lives in the only way they know how. In another, dare I say more accurate way, they are the embodiment of pure evil. And they’re not the only ones. There’s a whole range of nasty, bitey insects out there, all spreading their own range of diseases.
Kids are especially vulnerable because they haven’t built up that sort of “mosquito reflex” where you unconsciously maintain an awareness of and automatically and effectively swat at offending insects. They will literally just stand there and get themselves bitten. Then they will complain all night about being itchy, at best, or die of malaria or something, at worst.
Use light, loose clothing, mosquito nets, and repellant. You can also achieve a lot by steering yourselves inside at dawn and dusk and closing windows and doors so the little devils don’t get in to your sleeping area in the first place (the “little devils” being the insects, not the children). See your doctor for specific advice about preventative medications, but don’t use them as a license to do away with other measures.
Bubs On The Move (a doctor) has a great article about staying mosquito-safe.
Teach and Supervise
You might be able to trust little Jimmy around stray dogs at home, but you will be surprised (not to mention frustrated) by how limited his ability to generalise those rules to stray dogs on the beach in Thailand really is. Seriously, it will make you tear your hair out.
When you take your kids out of the environment they have learnt to stay safe in, it’s worth subtracting at least a few years from your worst estimate of their basic common sense. Take nothing for granted.
Pack a first aid kit (and a knowledge of how to use it), a phone, and the emergency numbers for your travel insurance provider and embassy.
Just in case.
So far, in all our travels, one child has had one relatively minor bout of vomiting and diarrhoea, and we did slightly break some traveller’s rules about eating on that one. Six months later, the sickness is all but forgotten, but P still makes replicas of the bamboo railway out of broken toys and used teabags. I call win.
Leave any other health and safety tips in the comments!
Read my full set of tips for travelling with young children. Especially the one where I talk about the unexpected fine print we’ve found in travel insurance policies.
Check out Dr Danielle’s full section on travel health.