Physical Health

Travel and Health

Whether you're planning a trip overseas, or looking to visit friends and family in the U.S., there are considerations to keep in mind. You can help keep yourself safe by planning ahead and using some of the tips offered on this page. 

What are some ways I can stay safe in the bus terminal, train station, or airport?

  • Check with your airline, bus or train service to make sure your transportation is running on schedule so you are not waiting for a long period of time. Have your photo ID and passport available to be checked.

  • Always notify family or friends of your travel route, itinerary, expected time of arrival and any schedule changes. If possible, carry a fully charged cell phone in case of an emergency.

  • If you need to have carry-on luggage, pack only what is necessary. Visit the TSA website for up-to-date security policies (i.e. permissible liquids, gels or aerosols).

  • Check as much baggage as possible to keep your hands free.

  • Do not pack any item that may be considered a weapon. Do not accept packages from anyone you do not know. Keep your luggage under your control until you check it in with the baggage handlers.

  • Always be aware of your surroundings.

  • While waiting for your bus, train, or plane, stand near other travelers. If the immediate area is deserted or dark, stay near an occupied building or in a lighted area.

  • If traveling alone on a bus, sit as close to the driver as possible.

  • If you feel you are being followed or harassed by someone, go directly to the nearest occupied building or employee and ask for help.

  • Never leave a drink unattended. If your drink is out of sight, even for a few minutes, don't finish it.

  • Do not hitchhike or accept rides from people you don't know, including people you just met on the plane, bus, or train. 

Where can I get the immunizations I need for my trip?

The first step is to know what immunizations and medications are required, as well as any suggested, for the country you are traveling to. You can find that information, as well as up-to-date disease outbreak information for specific areas of travel on the CDC's website or through the program you are traveling with.

Once you know what immunizations and medications you need, call 401.863-3953 to make an appointment with a provider at Health Services. After meeting with a provider you will then make an appointment with the Immunization Nurse at Health Services. It's important to see the provider first, because vaccines must be ordered before they can be given to you. Your appointment with the Immunization Nurse may be the same day as your appointment with the provider, depending on vaccine and appointment availability. If the yellow fever or Japanese encephalitis vaccine is required, schedule an appointment at one of the following travel clinics, as Brown Health Services does not carry those immunizations:

Miriam Hospital 401.793-4075
164 Summit Avenue
Providence, RI 02906

Memorial Hospital 401.729-3610
111 Brewster Street
Pawtucket, RI 02860

A fee is charged for the visit to the Travel Clinic. This includes a packet of good general information, a consultation specific to your trip, and the prescriptions for medications. Immunizations needed are charged individually. Medication may be covered by insurance; vaccinations are usually not covered by insurance and you are responsible for covering the costs. If there is any question, consult your insurance company prior to receiving vaccinations or medication.

If a physical exam is required for your travel, you may have this done at Health Services. Call 401.863-3953 to schedule an appointment with a provider as soon as possible. 

What other medical preparations do I need to think about?

  • Glasses and contact lenses: Take an extra pair with you. Take a copy of your eyeglass prescription.

  • Medications: Antimalarial medication must be taken on schedule before you get there, while you are there, and after you return home. Take enough of your usual prescription drugs for your entire time away. Keep medication in its original "prescription-labeled" container, protect it from heat, and carry it with you on the plane. Know why you are taking the medication, the proper dose, and the generic or scientific name of the medication. If you take injection medication, carry a doctor's prescription for the syringes.

  • Wear Medic Alert identification indicating specific health problems or allergies.

  • If you have a chronic disease, ask your medical provider to write a brief summary of your medical history to carry with you.

  • Personal travel health kit: This list is formulated for regions of higher risk and lesser access to health care. Your kit can be tailored to your specific needs, and may include prescription medications (for malaria, traveler's diarrhea, altitude sickness, etc.). Additionally, it may include:

  • Antacid/antidiarrheal medication for upset stomach

  • Antifungal creams/suppositories

  • Antihistamines/decongestants for the common cold

  • Aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever, muscle aches, or pain relief

  • Athlete's foot remedy

  • Calamine lotion

  • Contraceptive supplies

  • First Aid Supplies:

    • Ace Wrap (elastic bandage)

    • Adhesive tape

    • Antiseptic cream

    • Band-Aids and gauze

    • Flashlight and extra batteries

    • Jackknife

    • Matches

    • Needle, thread, and safety pins

    • Pencil and paper

    • Scissor and Tweezers

    • Thermometer

  • Immunization certificates

  • Insect repellant containing less than 35% DEET for the skin; other repellants, mosquito netting, and/or protective clothing may be helpful.

  • Motion sickness remedy (ex. Dramamine)

  • Razors, so you have a clean supply

  • Plastic bags

  • Menstrual supplies (take extra)

  • Toilet paper, moist towlettes, and antibacterial soap

  • Sunscreen: The higher the SPF, the greater the protection; Lip balm, sunglasses, and a hat

  • Vitamins that you regularly take

  • Water purification tablets if appropriate 

What about traveler's diarrhea?

Contaminated food and drink are common causes of infection when traveling in other countries. Take these precautionary steps in order to avoid harmful bacteria that cause traveler's diarrhea and other gastrointestinal illnesses:

  • Wash uncooked foods in bottled or boiled water before eating or eat only peeled fruits and vegetables. Be wary of eating salad.
  • Avoid purchasing food or drink from street vendors.
  • Drink bottled or boiled water and use it to brush your teeth. Avoid ice cubes. Bottled beverages are usually safe to drink.
  • Do not bathe or swim anywhere unless you are certain that the water is safe/sanitary.

You can find out more information on food and water safety on the CDC's website. 

How does flying affect the ear?

Travel can be tough on your ears: flying in airplanes, descending into valleys below sea level, riding elevators to the tops of tall buildings, and scuba diving are just some of the things that can bother your ears. Such activities involve changes in atmospheric pressure and disturb the equilibrium in your ears. The result can be a host of unpleasant symptoms. Discomfort and pain, unusual noises and sensations, temporary hearing loss, and, occasionally - many hours later - symptoms not always associated with ear problems such as dizziness, nausea and headache.

The problem is the middle ear, a small air pocket inside your ear. Knowing how it works can help you prevent problems. The middle ear connects with the outside via a narrow tube, the eustachian tube, which opens in the back of the nose. Normally, air passes freely from the outside through the nose and through the eustachian tube into the middle ear. And the atmospheric pressure is the same in all areas.

The free flow of air is easily interrupted. The area where the eustachian tube opens in the nose is often congested with nasal secretions from colds and allergies. Most commonly, ear problems occur during the descent of an airplane, when air contracts. The usual reason for this is that the eustachian tube is partially blocked. Mucus acts like a flap over the end of the tube, which, in effect, becomes a one-way valve, allowing air out but not back into the middle ear. With the air in the middle ear contracting, a vacuum develops and sucks in surrounding tissue. This causes pain. Pain can also develop when you gain altitude if the Eustachian tube is completely blocked. In this situation, air in the middle ear expands and, having no outlet, balloons out against surrounding tissue. 

How can I reduce discomfort?

Travel is generally safe with mild nasal congestion and some nasal discharge as long as you feel well, have no difficulty breathing through your nose and have no earache. Medication will help.

Decongestants help shrink swollen tissue and reduce secretions. For best results take them about an hour before you will encounter changes in atmospheric pressure. Decongestants are available at all pharmacies and do not require a prescription. Be aware that many decongestants are sold in combination with antihistamines, and antihistamines cause drowsiness, which can be dangerous if you plan to drive or dive. Also, people with special medical problems and pregnant women should always consult a medical provider or pharmacist before taking medication.

Nasal decongestant sprays (eg Afin nasal spray or a generic equivalent) also are effective. Use them about 10 minutes before you think you may experience a problem. Spray once into each nostril; in 5 minutes, blow your nose to remove loosened mucus. Repeat if discomfort continues or if you continue to expel secretions. Do not repeat more than 3 times. Excessive spraying can cause dizziness, nervousness and rebound congestion; avoid prolonged use.

Swallow often. Swallowing activates the muscles that pull open the Eustachian tubes. You swallow more often when you chew gum or allow mints to melt in your mouth. Yawning is an even better activator. (Sleeping during descent increases your chances of experiencing ear discomfort; you may swallow less frequently and may not keep up with pressure changes.

If yawning and swallowing are not effective, try the following: Pinch your nostrils shut. Fill your mouth with air. Using your cheeks and throat muscles, force that air into the back of your nose. Hopefully, you will hear a pop. If no pop, repeat several times. Do not use force from your lungs or diaphragm; the pressure may be too high. 

When should I postpone flying?

People with ear, nose, and sinus infections or severe congestion should avoid flying because the obstruction of air flow may cause pain and injury. If flying cannot be postponed or avoided, decongestants and anti-inflammatory agents may help reduce air flow obstruction and discomfort. 

What are the symptoms of ear problems after a flight?

If you experience dizziness, nausea or headache several hours or even a day or two after an airplane flight or mountain trip, the cause may be an ear problem. Often such symptoms are erroneously attributed to food or other problems withf travel. In fact, these can be symptoms of damage to your ears from pressure changes. If the symptoms continue, see a doctor, preferably one who specializes in ears. 

Scuba diving

Scuba dive only if you are totally free of cold and allergy symptoms. Ear barotrauma is the most common injury in divers. On descent, failure to equalize pressure changes within the middle ear space creates a pressure gradient across the eardrum, which can cause bleeding or fluid accumulation in the middle ear and stretching or rupture of the eardrum and the membranes covering the windows of the inner ear. Symptoms can include pain, ringing in the ear, vertigo, a sensation of fullness in the ear and decreased hearing.

You should avoid airplane travel and mountain climbing for 12 hours after your dive or 18 hours after multiple dives. There are enormous pressure changes from deep under the water to 7,000 feet, the usual cabin altitude of a jet cruising at about 30,000 feet. This increases your risk of developing decompression sickness, which includes the following symptoms:

  • joint aches or pain
  • numbness, tingling, mottling or marbling of skin
  • coughing spasms or shortness of breath
  • itching
  • unusual fatigue
  • dizziness, weakness, staggering, loss of coordination, tremors
  • loss of bowel or bladder function
  • collapse or unconsciousness. 

Contact lenses in the air

Air travel can irritate the eyes of lens wearers. Pressurized cabins dehydrate the air and rob the eyes of moisture needed for comfortable lens wear. The lower air humidity in planes also causes tears to evaporate and thus eliminates the chief source of oxygen under the lens.

To ensure that eyes remain comfortable in flight, you can follow these tips:

  • Be sure that lenses have been thoroughly cleaned before takeoff.
  • Read in intervals. Eyes do not blink as much when reading, which can further reduce the amount of tears and lubrication.
  • Remove the lenses before sleeping, even the shortest of naps.
  • Use lubricating eye drops frequently during the flight. 

Related Links

Mayo Clinic's page on dry eyes

CDC's Traveler's Health 
Find specific information on vaccinations, diseases, mosquito and tick prevention, and food and water safety for the destination you are traveling to.

CDC Travel Health & Safety App for iPhone 


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