FALLING sick as soon as you go on holiday is a classic scenario. It seems as soon as we stop rushing around and take a break from our usual routine, our bodies take it as a signal to be ill. Then there are the bugs and hazards we encounter in places where different hygiene standards apply, not to mention the increased food, alcohol, extreme sports and all-round hedonism we might indulge in while we're off the work treadmill. How many times have you spent your holiday horizontal – and not in a good way?
Whether your next vacation sees you taking a credit crunch staycation or heading somewhere warmer, a bit of forward planning can make the difference between a break to remember or one you'll never forget.
COLDS AND FLU
All that New Year kissing and hugging will have exposed you to colds and flu, but it's never too late to get a swine flu jab if you think you're in the at-risk group. Fortunately the number of people with the virus continues to fall, with 9,000 estimated new cases in the week before Christmas, down from 11,000 the week before. And if you already have swine flu, do us all a favour and turn down any invitations no matter how tempting; the only drink you should be enjoying is a hot toddy.
As far as travelling abroad goes, some countries have introduced medical screening for swine flu at airports for passengers arriving on international flights and you may be required to undergo further tests if you show flu-like symptoms.
IF YOU'RE GOING ABROAD
A good tip is to make your first stop the NHS Scotland travel website, 'fitfortravel' (www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk). Compiled by experts from Health Protection Scotland, it has destination-specific disease information, plus news of the latest outbreaks. There you can check out the dengue fever in Queensland and Florida, measles in South Africa and the current advice on swine flu.
PACKING MEDICATION AND PRESCRIPTIONS
Remember to pack your medication in your carry-on luggage and take a prescription with you in case any of it goes astray. Your doctor's phone number and any insurance details should also go with you in case of an emergency.
You should take a basic health kit that includes, sunscreen (SPF 15 minimum), insect repellent for malarial areas (30 per cent Deet minimum) or a natural repellent, such as Mosiguard (OK for non-malarial areas); hydrocortisone cream (1 per cent) for sunburn and insect bites, anti-diarrhoea medicine (loperamide based), rehydration sachets, plasters, bandages, sterile dressings, micropore tape, scissors, tweezers, safety pins, painkillers and condoms.
Holiday insurance might be boring but when you're lying twisted and broken, waiting for the ski ambulance to arrive, you'll be glad you spent that extra 40 or so and sorted it before you left. Choose a policy that covers you for up to 1 million, or 2 million if you're going to the US. And if you travel more than twice a year, it's worth looking at an annual policy. If the worst does happen, try to contact the insurer before you're treated if possible so they can authorise it.
If you're travelling to any EU country, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway or Switzerland, pick up a form at a post office for a European health insurance card (EHIC). This entitles you to state medical treatment on the same basis as an "insured" citizen of that country and, although this doesn't mean you'll get everything you'd get in the UK for free, you can usually claim it back.
Most of these need to be done a month before you travel and depend on where you're going. Tetanus/diphtheria (combined jab), polio and TB are required worldwide and are free from your GP, while TB is around 25. Hepatitis A is needed for Africa, Asia or South America and is often available free from GPs. Hepatitis B for Africa, Asia or South America for frequent or long-term travellers, yellow fever, which costs 40 to 55, for Africa or South America, and some Asian countries require a yellow fever certificate if you're travelling from an infected region. Rabies for Africa, Asia or South America costs 35 to 45 and is dependent on the type of trip you are taking, while the Japanese encephalitis jab costs 45 and is advised for travel to poorer, rural areas in Asia, where it is more likely you'll be in contact with livestock.
If you're lucky enough to be going somewhere hot, check the malaria risk at www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes come out at dusk so sleep under a net or use plug-in insect repellents and slap on plenty of anti-insect cream containing Deet (diethyltoluamide, minimum 30 per cent). If you're travelling to an at-risk area, there are various anti-malarial drugs including chloroquine and proguanil, which can be bought at chemists, while others require a doctor's prescription and must be taken for four weeks after you return to cover the incubation period of the disease. For an idea of cost and effectiveness, it's worth having a look at www.which.co.uk/advice/holiday-health/malaria.
These are all too common thanks to food, drink and bugs. Most work themselves out within 72 hours but try not to get dehydrated (this is especially important for children). Take dehydration sachets or make your own solution by dissolving four heaped teaspoons of sugar and a level half-teaspoon of salt in a litre of tepid water. A loperamide-based medicine such as Imodium is handy, but you should only take four doses a day. It's also wise, if no fun, to avoid ice-cream, salads, seafood and alcohol if you can.
Finally, don't forget the SPF 30. Pale Scottish skins are ripe for the burning, especially since they've been swathed in woolly jumpers for the past couple of months, and no matter how much we think we're aware of what the sun can do, it's easy to get caught out. Calamine lotion and aloe vera are good if you overdo it, and if you've really suffered seek medical help.
With all of the above covered, all that remains is to pack up your blockbuster, bikini and troubles as you head off for some well-deserved rest and recreation. As long as your flight isn't cancelled due to snow.
Which? Holiday Health (www.which.co.uk/advice/holiday-health) has a wealth of tips and information for travellers.
www.masta.org has fact sheets on diseases, general advice and information for special-risk groups, such as cruise-ship travellers.
www.cdc.gov is the US government site full of amazing detail, but easy to get lost in.
www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk features travel health issues that are plainly set out with useful advice.
www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk has specific advice for specialist groups, such as elderly, pregnant, diabetic and asthmatic travellers, plus tips on such topics as altitude sickness.
The National Travel Health Network and Centre (www.nathnac.org) is funded by the Department of Health and is based at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. Its website contains a wealth of information, but it is also especially good for getting advice on the specific health risks of individual countries.
This article was first published in Scotsman on Sunday on 10 January, 2010.