The main travel season is upon us, and everywhere backpackers, city trippers and entire families are setting off on their summer holidays. Wherever their trip takes them, their health should be an issue they always pay attention to. While some may choose to neglect this topic, others might be unsettled by health myths. In order to bring some light into the mix of rumors and half-truths, we met with experts in the field of travel health and asked them about health myths on the road. To keep you well-informed from the start of your vacation, Dr. Ursula Hollenstein and Dr. Georg Stühlinger of the “Traveldoc” travel health center in Vienna, share their insights into five of the most persistent myths on travel health.
Travel myths are widespread. Everyone who likes to travel has come across one or other of them. The increasing flood of information on health and illness from the internet offers instant access to an amount of data that, if not explained properly, can be too much for or misleading for the lay reader. Moreover, travel stories from friends and acquaintances who have heard rumors or had individual experiences themselves, can often not be generalized and should be met with caution. Finally, myths and wrong information can be spread by self-proclaimed experts at the destination. Unfortunately, this information can point people in the wrong direction and is potentially dangerous. While well-trained medical professionals in a trustworthy health care system can usually give reliable advice about the health situation in a country, this is less the case for ex-pats living there or even locals without well-founded medical knowledge, and even less so for one-time travelers with a lack of experience. Here are some of the most persistent rumors about travel health.
Myth #1: Tap water should be avoided when brushing your teeth
This is a widespread myth. According to Dr. Hollenstein and Dr. Stühlinger it is often assumed that since tap water is not drinkable in many countries, it also should not be used when brushing your teeth or even showering. The travel doctors make it clear that these precautions are not necessary and only cause unnecessary concern. Whereas drinking or swallowing larger amounts of tap water should be avoided at all times, the amounts of water one swallows while brushing one’s teeth or when showering are not enough to result in negative health consequences. If kids are still swallowing water while they brush their teeth, it makes sense to give them bottled water instead of tap water; however if they can already handle teeth brushing correctly, they too can use tap water. On the other hand, even if the locals drink the tap water, it doesn’t mean that you should. In such cases it can be assumed that they too have health issues as a consequence, problems that you will be glad to do without during your trip.
Conclusion: When traveling, it is safe to use tap water to brush your teeth or shower with, but it should never be drunk.
Myth #2: Local diarrhea medication is better than what you bring from home
This myth is fuelled by the assumption that in cases of travel diarrhea one should purchase medication at one’s destination rather than use what you brought from home, since there are different bacteria at work in different places, and locals have better medication to treat the resulting illnesses. In response to this, the Traveldoc team cites the dangers of unsafe medical supplies connected with using local medication: you simply never know which drug it is. It might be meds that are not or no longer licensed in Europe, there may be side-effects when they are combined with other drugs, or what is prescribed could simply have expired or be totally ineffective.
Dr. Stühlinger explodes this myth and says that while relying on sketchy local medicine will not necessarily lead to a catastrophe, this kind of treatment brings with it an unnecessary health risk that is difficult to gauge and at the same time provides no guaranteed benefit in return. Since diarrhea in particular is a topic that is part of almost everyone’s travel preparations, it is relatively easy to obtain suitable medication for this prior to departure. This way one is not dependent on unsafe treatments at the destination and also has a possible remedy when hiking in the middle of nowhere, miles from any sort of civilization, or should the apparently familiar names on the drug packaging in the pharmacy not look like the real thing.
By the way, even if you have already had the dubious pleasure of making the acquaintance of Montezuma’s revenge, you are not immune to future visits from this particularly unpleasant character. Though it is a commonly held belief, one-time travel diarrhea does not prevent it from happening again, making it a good idea to be prepared for it.
Conclusion: Local diarrhea drugs entail a lot of unnecessary risks but no guarantee of relief. An appropriately equipped first-aid kit, assembled prior to departure, is the best choice.
Myth #3: Coca leaves can be used to prevent altitude sickness
This health myth is relevant for trips to Peru, Bolivia or Ecuador. The local population likes to chew coca leaves, and many travelers return from their trip full of praise for the preventive effects the leaves have on altitude sickness. Unfortunately, this effect does not exist, as Dr. Hollenstein explains: the depressant effect of the leaves or their tea can alter the subjective perception of symptoms of altitude sickness, but it cannot actually influence the sickness itself. It is not the side effects or health hazard of coca leaf consumption that make this myth potentially dangerous, but the fact that believing the myth leads travelers to neglect to prepare for dealing with altitude sickness. When travelers assume that consuming coca leaves will prevent altitude sickness from occurring, they tend to forget about getting enough information on actual preventive measures, the symptoms of the sickness, and what measures to take when these symptoms are detected. This way, when the sickness actually occurs, they generally have no idea what to do. Therefore it is essential to obtain detailed information about altitude sickness in advance. When on the road this helps you to keep an eye on your body and detect possible symptoms early. The only real preventive measures that can be taken are increased liquid intake and planning routes that contain a slow ascent in order for the body to get used to the altitude.
After arriving in high areas it makes sense to go easy on the body and give it time to acclimatize before putting any more strain on it. If altitude sickness occurs anyway, Dr. Stühlinger says the only correct treatment is to go back down. Afterwards it is helpful to rest and give the body the chance to recover. To be on the safe side, a brief medical check-up won’t hurt, either.
Conclusion: Coca leaves do not prevent altitude sickness. The only effective preventive measures are increased liquid intake and a slow ascent.
Myth #4: Vitamin B prevents mosquito bites
According to Dr. Hollenstein this myth is about the belief that dietary supplements containing vitamin B have a preventive effect on mosquito bites. In her opinion the myth is based on the fact that increased vitamin B intake causes an unpleasant body odor, which is supposed to repel mosquitoes. However, this does not work. In consequence you will end up with more bites and in the worst case you can be infected with one of the many diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, such as malaria or dengue fever. The better choice would be conventional mosquito repellants, and one should pay close attention to how these are applied. Dr. Stühlinger adds that normally the failure of a mosquito repellant to work is due to its having been wrongly applied.
It is important to apply the repellant generously, meaning not just to spray it on, but also to spread the repellant, and to refresh protection every four hours. Mosquitoes can often be found indoors since they are cave animals and hide in dark corners and nooks. It’s generally advisable to be constantly prepared for mosquito protection and at least to have some repellant within easy reach since at all times, especially in new areas, as one never knows when quick access might be needed. The Traveldocs emphasize, however, that even the best mosquito protection can only minimize the risk rather than offer 100% protection; no-one will be able to avoid getting one or two bites. This in itself is not a cause for concern. It’s only if a fever sets in that one should seek medical advice. The fever can be a symptom of a more serious illness and should be monitored and checked.
Conclusion: Vitamin B does not prevent mosquito bites. Effective mosquito repellants, applied correctly refreshed regularly, are the keys to minimizing risks.
Myth #5: Malaria is incurable
Malaria is a familiar topic among travelers headed for subtropical and tropical regions. Unfortunately, there are some wrong assumptions about the nature and duration of the sickness. The myth says that malaria is incurable and once infected one will never get rid of it. This leads to a great deal of uncertainty among travelers, and many refuse medication because they believe that fighting malaria is a lost cause. The Traveldocs explain that, given appropriate medication and treatment, malaria can be cured completely and will not occur again. In fact it’s essential to receive correct and timely treatment, since wrong or half-hearted therapy can lead to more outbreaks of malaria, which in turn fuels the rumors that the disease is incurable.
In the worst case – meaning malaria tropica – such mistakes can be fatal. Thus it’s essential to make provisions to receive professional medical treatment. It can be helpful to have a basic knowledge of the medical facilities available at one’s destination before traveling. According to Dr. Stühlinger and Dr. Hollenstein, the reliability of medical institutions can change often and unexpectedly, which can make a quick call to your local embassy worthwhile, since they are usually able to provide reliable information. It is also possible to take prophylactic medicine or pack drugs to be taken at the first sign of malaria symptoms. Here, too, it is essential to take such drugs in appropriate doses. Since the relevance of malaria varies from country to country, consulting an expert in travel medicine before the trip is highly recommendable, as they can help clarify issues and explain which medication might be needed, and what to do in acute cases.
Conclusion: With the appropriate treatment, malaria can be cured completely and does not occur again. To make sure this is possible, your embassy at your destination can usually point you toward a trustworthy medical facility that can give you professional treatment.
Who are the Traveldocs?
The Traveldocs are university lecturer Dr. Ursula Hollenstein and Dr. Georg Stühlinger, both highly experienced internists with many years in the field as senior physicians at Vienna General Hospital. They combine their own passion for travel and several additional qualifications from the fields of tropical medicine, travel medicine, diving and hyperbaric medicine, alpine and high altitude medicine, as well as emergency medicine in their work at the travel medicine center.
When it comes to travel they are especially interested in individual experiences as well as different cultures and people, but also like to spend a week on the beach to complete a vacation. While on the road they are fascinated by empty deserts, jungle expeditions, and high-altitude mountain hikes to Chinese megacities.
Travel vaccinations (including a yellow fever vaccination center), malaria counseling, diving and hyperbaric medicine, altitude testing and altitude training, interpretation of sickness symptoms after a vacation.
Article translated from German.