Primary Care

Studying Abroad: Health & Safety Tips

Dr. Abdullah Firoze gives his insight into the most important health considerations to think about before your big study-abroad trip.

Jan. 13, 2020 3   min read

Health tips for young travelers

Studying abroad is growing in popularity among American college students, giving students and their parents lots to consider when preparing to take advantage of the opportunity. But unlike a regular vacation, students studying abroad spend a significant amount of time away from their normal health care provider.

Here are some important health considerations to remember when preparing to leave home.

Vaccines & immunizations

When traveling to new countries, it’s important to be aware of the required vaccinations.Primary care physician Dr. Abdullah Firoze recommends making an appointment at least 4 to 6 weeks before travel to get your vaccinations.

“Many primary care offices don’t carry a lot of the vaccines that are required to travel to some countries,” says Dr. Firoze. “In addition to meeting with your primary care provider, there are travel clinics available to make an appointment.”

Depending on where you travel, various vaccinations outside of routine vaccines may be required. The CDC announced a global measles outbreak as of January 2020, making it crucial to receive a measles vaccination regardless of your destination. Other commonly required vaccinations include hepatitis A and B, polio and typhoid. If a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is available, you should consider getting the vaccine and checking your destination for COVID-19 cases. 

The country you’re traveling to may require vaccinations not listed here, which is why it’s important to schedule a doctor’s appointment well before travel. And remember to never travel if you have the flu or COVID-19.

Prescription medications

Students should pack enough medicine for the entire trip, plus a little extra. Primary care providers will provide enough medication for the duration of the trip. It’s a good idea to bring a copy of each prescription and a doctor’s note explaining the need for the medication.

The TSA has specific guidelines for traveling with prescribed medication, so it's a good idea to review them before traveling. “Carry your prescriptions in the original bottle with all of the labels.” Dr. Firoze says, “Bringing them in a plastic bag can look suspicious.”

Many medications commonly prescribed in the United States are prohibited in other countries. Before packing medicine, check with the foreign embassy of the country you’re visiting for information on what medications are prohibited.

In addition to prescriptions, packing over-the-counter medications is often a good idea because the same medicine might not be available at the destination or during travel. Dr. Firoze recommends bringing ibuprofen and or acetaminophen, which can be hard to find in a foreign country. 

Food & water

In the United States, we drink water without concerns about safety. However, that’s not the case for many countries. Drinking bottled water instead of tap water can reduce the risk of contracting a disease and reduce digestive issues. Avoid using ice because it may contain unclean water.

Traveler’s diarrhea is the most common travel-related illness and is often caused by contaminated water. It can occur anywhere but is most common in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America. If you contract diarrhea, the CDC recommends over-the-counter medication. 

Food is safe to consume at most destinations, but here is a list of foods to be extra cautious about:

  • Cold meat platters, cheese, and unsealed mayonnaise
  • Seafood dishes, especially shellfish and fish served raw
  • Raw meat or eggs
  • Unpasteurized dairy products

Freshly cooked foods are less likely to be harmful. Condiments are the safest when in sealed packages. It’s important to remember that not all countries have the same food safety regulations as the United States. 

When traveling to developing countries, only eat food that is fully cooked and served hot. Avoid eating fresh vegetables or fruits unless you can peel them yourself. Trying local foods from foreign countries can be an exciting cultural experience, but it is important to err on the side of caution when consuming food from unknown places. 

“A good rule of thumb is to follow the crowd,” said Dr. Firoze. “Busy places are more likely to contain safer food, and it is never a bad idea to check reviews online before eating at a restaurant.”

Mental health

Mental health is a growing concern for college students. Many students planning to study abroad may currently take prescribed medication or attend counseling for mental health reasons. Planning resources in advance is the best option for students.

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For students traveling to non-English speaking countries, the International Therapist Directory is a good resource to narrow down counselors searching to professionals who speak English. It is recommended to contact the therapist before travel to become familiar with them. 

Traveling abroad and being away from home can be stressful and cause various mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

“Know the emergency number in the country you are visiting,” advises Dr. Firoze. “Beyond understanding the health care system of the country, it’s crucial to be aware of the number to call in case of an emergency.”

Privacy & safe sex

Most students who travel abroad are 18 or older. This means that HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) applies. If an illness or health emergency occurs abroad, parents may not be automatically informed or given details because of this law. Therefore, students and parents need to discuss what they prefer to disclose when the student is abroad.

Establishing a relationship with a primary care provider can be difficult for young adults, but it’s very important to do, especially before traveling. 

“Even if you’re feeling perfectly fine, it’s important to establish a relationship with your primary care provider in case something does come up,” Dr. Firoze says. “People tend to be uncomfortable talking with doctors about things like sex. Primary care providers are professionals and do not judge or discriminate. The most important thing is safety.”

Dr. Firoze reminds everyone that sexual safety is another concern when traveling abroad. “Be sure to bring condoms and wear them during any sexual activity from start to finish. It is one of the biggest concerns for people traveling overseas.”

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In most cases, colleges and universities that allow students to study abroad have partnerships with agencies that arrange insurance for students. Many larger schools offer their own sponsored insurance plans. If this is not the case, insurance can be applied for through providers that work specifically with international travelers. 

Some examples include ASA Inc., Cultural Insurance Services International, and World Nomads Insurance.

While abroad, if medical advice or attention is necessary, the CDC provides information on finding health care providers when abroad.

Having appropriate health insurance is extremely important when studying abroad. Although it may seem like it won’t be used, being covered and preparing for all outcomes is important when planning a long trip out of the country.

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