RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Men and women may want to take different precautions when traveling abroad, suggests a new study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. Researchers found that men are much more likely to get sick from the bites of mosquitoes, ticks, lice, and fleas, while women are more likely to get hit with diarrhea.
Researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland analyzed travel data from nearly 60,000 international travelers. They discovered that the men were more commonly treated for malaria, dengue fever, rickettsia, and mosquito- or tick-borne illnesses, as well as for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) contracted from sex abroad. However, the women were significantly more likely to be treated for diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome; a quarter of the women suffered acute attacks of diarrhea.
To explain these differences, the researchers hypothesize that women may simply be more open than men to seeking treatment for diarrhea, and men may be more prone to bug bites because of excessive sweating, which washes off insect repellent and attracts insects. But there may be other forces at play, as well.
What it Means
The study points to some tendencies, but women should certainly still protect themselves from STDs, mosquitoes, and ticks. And men need to remain vigilant about contaminated drinking water and other causes of diarrhea.
Regardless of your gender, these travel health tips will help ensure that you’re happy and healthy on the plane ride home.
Know what you're up against
Always check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Travelers' Health website to learn about destinations, diseases related to travel, recommended vaccinations, and travel-medicine clinics here in the U.S. If you opt to use a clinic, it's best to make an appointment at least six weeks before you depart, as some vaccinations are given in a series. These can take several weeks to complete.
Manage those mosquitoes
When traveling to such areas as Africa, Central and South America, and southern China, you’ll need to be especially wary of malaria, dengue, and yellow fever. In other areas, including the United States, West Nile virus is the bigger concern. While DEET-containing repellents do work, this harsh chemical comes with risks, including risks of birth defects and damage to your nervous system. Permethrin is a chemical treatment you apply to your clothing rather than your skin, but studies have found it makes its way into waterways and can cause pollution. But you don't need powerful chemicals to keep the little bloodsuckers off your skin. A Canadian study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the plant-oil-based product Bite Blocker All Natural repelled pests just as effectively as DEET. (Check out Rodale.com's natural bug repellent story to learn more.)
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Take care of ticks
Ticks may carry all sorts of nasty diseases, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, bartonella, and ehrlichiosis. To help keep you safe, there are a number of effective tick repellents on the market, but many contain the same powerful chemicals found in mosquito repellents. So it’s a matter of weighing the risk of bites versus the risks associated with exposure to the bug spray. Consider nonchemical options as well. For example, last year researchers at the Yale School of Public Health found that taking a shower within two hours of spending time outside, along with performing a tick check within 36 hours of being outside, provided significant protection against Lyme disease.
Ditch the diarrhea.
This highly unpleasant malady usually happens when you consume water or food contaminated with E. coli, which is more common in developing countries and can be serious if your immune system is compromised. Over-the-counter medicines normally work, but if you develop bloody stools or severe cramping, you need to see a doctor, who may prescribe antibiotics. Preventing traveler's diarrhea can be difficult, but if you spot common food-safety perils like undercooked meat at an outdoor stall or buffet, pass on it. Cocktails made with ice from unfiltered water are also suspect; bottled beer or wine is a safer choice.
• Pretend it's flu season. Women tend to come down with colds more often while abroad, but it's important (and easy) for everyone to practice proper hand-washing techniques to help guard against viral infections.
• Carry cranberry. To combat urinary tract infections, take along cranberry juice or pills. Drink it regularly before your trip, too, as research has shown that it helps prevent E. coli from attaching to your bladder walls. Yogurt and celery are also known to boost urinary tract health. If you get a urinary tract infection while you’re away, don’t hesitate to visit a clinic for antibiotics.
• Seek motion control. Motion sickness isn’t life-threatening like malaria or yellow fever, but it can be horribly unpleasant, especially if it goes on for hours. To stop it before it starts, try sitting over the airplane's wing when you fly and focusing on the horizon, opt for the front seat of a car (in the driver's seat is best of all) when you drive, and hang out in the midship area when on a boat. For further protection, take along ginger supplements, or chew on a quarter-ounce piece of fresh ginger.