An ounce of prevention can go a long way when you're traveling to the tropics, and this maxim holds true even when you're packing your bags for the well-traveled Caribbean. "People need to put the same kind of preparation into their health as they do into their destination choice, passport acquisition or flight plans," says travel-health expert Michelle Reesman, RN, executive director of Passport Health, who offers 10 easy steps you can take to ensure that your next Caribbean trip is healthy as well as happy.
- Get advice from a travel health professional. Four to six weeks before departure, consult a travel medicine specialist for the most up-to-date immunization, malaria recommendations, and consultation. They can answer your questions and prepare you for a safe and healthy trip, especially if you're heading off the beaten path. It's important to get your immunizations early, as some of the vaccines take time to effectively protect you. You also can check the travel warnings issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for each Caribbean island.
- Protect yourself from disease-bearing insects, especially mosquitos. Wear protective clothing and use products containing 20-30 percent DEET, the insect repellant permethrin, and bed nets.
- Never go barefoot when walking, even on the beach. Nothing ruins an active Caribbean vacation than a nasty cut on your foot from a hidden piece of glass or sharp coral, which can easily get infected in the tropics. Be careful when wearing flip-flops, too— tripping in loose flip-flops are the culprit for many travel-related foot injuries.
- Make sure your water is purified. Do not use tap water when brushing your teeth. Almost every hotel room has bottled water these days, so use it. When in doubt, ask the hotel staff if the water is safe to drink. In most Caribbean destinations, the answer will be yes.
- Consume only well-cooked food. Fruits and veggies? Peel it, boil it, or forget it! This is especially important when eating street food.
- Pre-fill your prescriptions, since they may not be available at your destination. Take extra supplies in case your trip is extended. In some countries, counterfeit medications can be a problem. Carry medications in their original packaging and pack in your carry-on luggage. Check local regulations before you go to ensure that your prescription drugs can be legally brought into your destination country.
- Avoid swimming in rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams. Well-chlorinated pools and salt water are usually considered safe, however.
- Take a basic first aid kit. Include medications for pain relief, such as ibuprofen and Tylenol, topical preparations for minor skin wounds and infections, and medications for allergic reactions (Benadryl). Consider presumptive treatment (Imodium and an antibiotic) for traveler's diarrhea. Discuss the appropriate antibiotics for your destination with a travel health specialist.
- Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of medical problems among tourists. Avoid riding motorcycles or definitely wear a helmet if you do so—and don't drink and drive. Wear a seatbelt and only try to travel during daylight hours on busy roads.
- Purchase travel insurance that includes emergency medical evacuation. Most medical insurance plans aren't accepted when you travel internationally.
In addition to these helpful tips, also know the number of the local hospital in case of emergency.
Just remember: a happy tourist is a healthy tourist! And with these key suggestions, you'll be on your way to the happiest vacation ever.