As India is a developing nation, visitors need to take special precautions against illnesses not normally encountered at home. A trip to a doctor or travel clinic is recommended well in advance of your departure date to ensure that you receive all the necessary immunizations and medications. In particular, the following common health issues should be addressed.
This very common travel ailment is encountered by many travelers and usually results from the consumption of contaminated food and water. Some people also find that their stomachs and intestines don't appreciate the change in diet or spicy food. It's a good idea to always carry Oral Rehydration Salts, as well as anti-diarrhea medicine (such as Immodium) in case you have to travel and won't have access to a toilet.
- Preventative measures: Only drink bottled water. Avoid buffets and only eat freshly cooked food that’s served hot. Eat in popular restaurants that are crowded and not empty, to ensure that the food is prepared fresh. Be careful of eating washed salads, fresh fruit juice (which may be mixed with water), and ice. Meat eaters should avoid food from cheap restaurants and railway station vendors.
Malaria and Dengue Fever
Both of these diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes and are most problematic in areas where there is stagnant water for mosquitoes to breed, particularly during and just after the monsoon season. They can produce some very nasty flu-like symptoms and fever. The mosquitoes that transmit the diseases are different types: Malaria-carrying ones usually bite at night, while the dengue fever-carrying "tiger striped" mosquitoes bite during the day (particularly during the very early morning).
- Preventative measures: As malaria is a protozoan infection, it can be prevented by taking anti-malarial drugs. Unfortunately, these powerful drugs can have some nasty side effects. Hence, it's really only necessary to take them if you'll be traveling to a malaria prone area. In most places in India, there's low risk of contracting the disease, unless there's a widespread outbreak during the monsoon season. It's better to protect yourself by using mosquito repellent. Dengue Fever, being a virus, is best avoided by taking precautions against mosquito bites, such as wearing a strong repellent containing DEET, as there is no vaccine currently available.
- Read More: How to Tell the Difference Between Malaria, Dengue, and Viral Fever
Hepatitis A and B
Hepatitis is a virus that affects the liver. Hepatitis A is contracted by ingesting contaminated food and water, while Hepatitis B is spread through blood and bodily fluids. Symptoms of hepatitis include fatigue, nausea, poor appetite, stomach pain, dark colored urine, and yellow skin or eyes (jaundice).
- Preventative measures: Both Hepatitis A and B are preventable by a combined needle-stick vaccination.
This bacterial disease is usually transmitted by food or water that’s contaminated with the feces of an infected person. It produces extremely high fever, sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Preventative measures: Typhoid is preventable by oral or needle vaccination, and treatable by antibiotics.
Tetanus is a bacterial disease from spores in the earth and animal dung, which enter the body through open cuts. It produces stiff muscles and spasms.
- Preventative measures: Effective vaccination is available and everyone should be immunized.
Rabies does exist in India, and there's a chance that you may be bitten by a stray dog or one of the hordes of monkeys that hang around tourists places (such as Rishikesh). The monkeys frequently steal food from people and will sometimes attack. Rabies is a fatal viral infection that's transmitted through saliva and humans can get it from an infected animal bite or lick. The disease affects the nervous system, causing hallucinations and aggression. Its incubation period in humans, before it starts showing symptoms, varies greatly. In general, it ranges from anywhere between three weeks to two months. However, more rarely, symptoms can start within a week. Wounds on the head, neck, or hands have more risk of infection reaching the brain faster. The first signs of illness are similar to the flu—fever, headache, and general weakness. Unfortunately, death is inevitable once symptoms begin to show.
- Preventative measures: Rabies can be prevented by receiving a full course of vaccinations. There are two options: pre-exposure and post-exposure. Pre-exposure vaccination consists of a series of three vaccine injections, to be followed up with an additional two booster doses if bitten. Post-exposure, the vaccination requires a series of four injections. A shot of Rabies Immune Globulin is also sometimes given. If you're bitten but haven't been vaccinated, it's important to wash the wound immediately for at least 15 minutes and seek medical treatment. If you receive post-exposure vaccination before symptoms appear, it will effectively prevent the disease from developing.
Cholera is relatively rare in India and the risk of death is low, although occasional limited outbreaks do occur. The classic symptom is prolific watery diarrhea that lasts a few days, caused by a bacterial infection in the intestine. It's transmitted by food or water that's been contaminated with human feces containing the bacteria. However, most travelers don't venture into areas where there is active cholera transmission.
- Preventative measures: The best way of preventing cholera is to only drink bottled water and eat well-cooked food in hygienic places. In addition, sanitize your hands regularly. The disease is primarily treated by oral re-hydration and antibiotics, which may shorten its duration. A vaccine is available but it's not usually recommended.