Traveling to Mexico and Central America: Staying healthy while abroad

Posted October 15, 2019


Stranded in his hotel in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with a 100.2-degree fever and a stomach ache— Ben Ehrlich, 28, a tourist from New York City, thinks to himself, “How do I find the nearest urgent care or even a pharmacy to buy Dayquil? I don’t speak or read Spanish.”

Panicking, he soon realizes that he is in rural Mexico with a rising crime rate, unable to find readily accessible medical care. Ultimately, the hotel did find a physician to help Ehrlich, but it was a scary situation that he should have prepared for.

According to the “International Travel Medicine Health Guide” by travel medicine practitioners Drs. Stuart Rose and Jay Keystone, “Out of over 30 million Americans who go abroad each year, approximately eight million go to less developed countries where the incidences of tropical and infectious diseases are often high. Up to 65 percent of travelers to the less developed world self-report a health problem during their trip.”

Thus, it is possible one may encounter a health-related issue when traveling to less-developed countries like Mexico and parts of Central America. Everyone’s worst fear is getting sick in an unfamiliar, mildly dangerous and underdeveloped country, but there are ways to prepare if such a situation arises.

Prior to embarking on vacation, make sure to head to your primary physician to speak about your upcoming travel plans as each traveler may have a unique health situation. For instance, if one is heading to a more rural area of the country, it is highly encouraged that they speak to their doctor to discuss potential vaccinations.

“[Individuals] should schedule a travel medicine appointment at least six weeks prior to travel. Please be sure to bring your travel itinerary and vaccination records to your appointment,” said a physician at the Student Health Service who asked to remain unnamed. “They should also be sure to review their health insurance plan and understand what medical services will be covered abroad.  In the case of an emergency, travelers should carry a card that identifies, in the local language, their blood type, chronic conditions, allergies and any medications they take.”

In any travel situation, it is most important that every traveler in the group has all of their vaccinations-up-to-date because even traveling through an airport and on airplane increase the risk of contracting an illness or just a common-cold.

“With travel, travelers should have their adult immunizations up to date. You are at an increased risk – you’re on an airplane getting there as much risk as ever getting influenza,” said Dr. Gordon Dickinson, an infectious disease specialist from Miami. “If you are an older person, you should have your pneumonia vaccines. Typhoid fever would be a universal one that people should get, and you should be vaccinated against Hepatitis A.”

Although one may have all have their regular immunizations, there may be an outbreak of a disease in Mexico at that particular time. Thus, travel advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are important to keep an eye out for.

Some countries also may require some immunizations to prevent travelers from introducing the infection to the native populations.

“The way the yellow fever vaccine works is that there are few countries where there is yellow fever at this time but if you are going on to other countries and some countries may require a traveler have a yellow fever vaccine – they don’t want it brought into the country,” said Dickinson.

As one begins to pack their belongings for the upcoming voyage, the essentials include a passport, bathing suits, flip-flops and sunscreen. However, most people forget to bring a first-aid kid. Traveling to a foreign country like Mexico or countries within Central America, commonly used medicines in the United States may not be offered or may be difficult to retrieve.

“Travelers should bring any prescription or over-the-counter medications they feel they may need while abroad,” said the doctor at the Student Health Service who asked to be unnamed.

Finally, when arriving to Mexico, it is imperative that one buys cases of bottled water because it can be very dangerous to drink tap-water. The biggest risk of contracting a disease or infection is from drinking unpurified water. Mexico’s drinking water, in particular, is known for its high risk of carrying water-borne diseases or infections. When eating in a restaurant and the waiter offers water, make sure to ask for bottled water.

 “The water that one consumes should be bottled water or water you know that has been processed because otherwise you cannot be sure about the water, Dickinson said. “One must be very careful about drinking surface water, water from little creeks, springs – they carry a risk.

In terms of food, it is highly advised to avoid eating lettuce or vegetables from an unfamiliar restaurant due to the risk of the produce being washed with contaminated water.

“When I was visiting Jalisco, Mexico, with my family, my dad and I both got lettuce on our tacos, which we didn’t realize was a bad idea, but they were freshly washed and there was so much water on it that 40 minutes later we both had to stop and run back to the place we were staying and we threw up for like an hour and a half each,” said Olivia Goldin-Dubois, 20-year-old college student at UM and an experienced traveler.

Additionally, most doctors tell their patients to not eat food from vendors in rural towns or off the side of the road as it produces the highest health risk.

“As a rule of thumb for travelers, the most dangerous food source are little places selling tamales on the street side or pop ups on the street side should be avoided because they have the lowest level of hygiene and highest level of risk,” said Dickinson. “The next would be little old canteens or marginal restaurants; the next would be regular restaurants in the town you visit and then the hotel restaurants would be the safest. What is considered the safest would be visit in a private home where you are staying with relatives and friends.”

One may be thinking, ‘what happens if I happen to get sick in Mexico?’ It may be an unsettling thought, but a creating a plan of action and confirming the nearest hospital prior to departure is important in the event an illness or injury does arise. The travel clinic at UM’s Student Health Service encourages students to find the accredited hospitals or clinics by the Joint Commission International closest to their hotel.

“Before you travel, you can check online about the medical services available, said Dickinson. “Generally, the best care will be in a metropolitan area and in most capitals, one can find good care.