Clinical health information Travelling as you age July 26 2019
Judith Ngai Judith Ngai Health writer

Looking after your health when you're travelling is important but don’t let your age stop you from pulling on your wandering boots!

Dreaming about those far-flung places you’ve always wanted to see? Your age need not stop you. With good planning and preparation, older people with or without health conditions can enjoy safe and healthy travelling.

Planning your trip

Once you’ve thought about the place that you’d like to visit, think on whether it’s likely to suit your health needs. For example:

  • Destination - whether it’s a city break, a safari or an activity-based holiday, will your health allow you to enjoy the destination?
  • Mode of travel - how will you arrive at your destination? Will the travel involve long periods of being seated on a plane or a bus? Will it require a lot of walking? Are there a lot of stairs or uneven surfaces? How will all of these suit you?
  • Activities - what activities are available at your destination? If you won’t be able to take part in all activities, what are your alternative options?
  • Eating and drinking - what kind of food and meals will be available? If meals won’t be provided, will you prepare or take your own food? If you have special dietary requirements, can you have your particular needs catered to? Are there facilities to store or keep your food cold?
  • Medical facilities - what kind of medical facilities are available locally? Do you know how to access and pay for medical care at your destination?

Booking your trip

Once you’ve decided on your destination and the type of holiday you would like, think ahead and notify people (such as your travel agent, airline or cruise company) who can help with your specific health needs.

For example, if you need special services including wheelchairs, shuttle services, special dietary concerns, and particular boarding and seating arrangements, notify your airline or cruise company well in advance so they can arrange this for you.

Medical equipment

If you need to take medical equipment, such as medical oxygen, to help manage your existing health condition, check with your GP and also relevant travel companies (e.g. the airline) before booking your tickets. You will likely be permitted to take on the equipment you need provided: 

  • your equipment is on an approved list of authorised medical equipment
  • your equipment meets requirements around therapy supply (for example, sufficient oxygen supply), power usage and battery life for the duration of your travel, including unscheduled delays
  • you (and/or your carer) knows how to operate the equipment
  • your medical practitioner completed and signed travel clearance documents indicating you are ‘fit to fly’ in accordance with travel clearance guidelines
  • you have completed required processes around travel clearance before boarding.  

Medicines and vaccinations

See your GP (and other specialists if needed) at least 6-8 weeks before you leave. Your doctor can advise you about vaccinations and any other specific medicines that you may need for your trip well before your departure date. This also helps allow sufficient time for required for preventive measures to take effect to protect you against particular diseases.

Vaccinations

Before you travel, talk to your GP, pharmacist or travel doctor about your travel plans to check whether you have had the specific vaccinations you need for your trip. Before travelling it’s important to make sure you are up to date with your routine vaccinations against infections such as tetanus, influenza and pneumococcal.

Some diseases are endemic (always present) in certain areas/countries so the need for vaccinations for these places is routine. Other diseases come and go and this is why the vaccination requirements can vary country to country, season to season, year to year. The vaccines you need will vary depending on your health and your exact itinerary; for example, where you’re going, how long you’re going for, the season you’re travelling in, what kinds of transportation you’ll be using, where you’re staying and what you’ll be eating.

You may need to be vaccinated for certain diseases as a condition of entry to some countries so it’s a good idea to check with the embassies or consulate offices of the countries you’re visiting or travelling through before you travel.

Once you’ve had your vaccinations, remember to document the details and carry a copy with you when you travel.

Prescribed medicines

If you need to bring medicines with you when travelling, talk to your doctor about what you need to take and also check with the rules and regulations of any travel services you use. You’ll likely need to carry documentation such as a medical certificate and/or prescriptions, as well as a letter from your doctor explaining each medication, what you need to take it for, and that it’s for personal use. Consider keeping photocopies of these documents with you in a separate location in case the originals are lost or retained. You also need to ensure the medicines are legal in the country you’re visiting by contacting the relevant embassy or consulate in Australia.

Where possible, keep your medicines in their original packets with the pharmacy label attached so it’s clearly labelled with your name and dosing instructions.

Take enough medicine to cover the length of your trip and also consider carrying a little extra in case you’re delayed on your return. Consider packing one set of medicines in your luggage and another set in your hand luggage. This way there’s less worry if your baggage goes astray during the journey.

If you need to carry needles and syringes while travelling or in the country of your destination, you may need to take a letter from your doctor explaining why you need them, and check with any travel services (e.g. airlines) well before you travel about any special precautions or policies they may have. 

If you’re taking medicines according to a strict timetable such as insulin injections, speak with your doctor especially if you’re travelling long distances. Keeping up with a strict schedule may become challenging during long haul travel, especially if it disturbs your body clock. Your doctor can give you specific advice about this.

And if you need to use an electrical device to help manage your health condition, check the power requirements of the country you are visiting and make sure you are well-equipped with compatible plugs and adaptors.

Over-the-counter medicines

Speak with your GP or pharmacist about whether you might need to take any over-the-counter medicines with you. You may find it handy have a small medical kit with basic items such as painkillers, antacids, medicines to prevent travel sickness, medicines to treat diarrhoea, antiseptic lotion, bandages, disposable gloves, SPF 50 sunscreen and insect repellent.

If you need to buy medicines on your travels, make sure you check with a qualified health professional about its suitability for you. Some medicines may be packaged and labelled similarly to those available in Australia, but can have different active ingredients and be of different strength to the medicines available in Australia.

Other health concerns

Apart from seeing your GP about vaccinations, it’s also a good idea to have a check-up to make sure there are no serious issues that could affect your travel plans.

If you’re travelling overseas or for a prolonged period of time, you may also want to think about having dental and eye checks before you go.

Certain health conditions can be associated with travelling that you may need to be aware of and taking appropriate precautions may be helpful.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) can happen when a blood clot forms in a vein, most commonly in the deep veins of your lower leg (calf). Large clots can partly or completely block the blood flow in your vein and cause symptoms such as swelling and pain in the affected area. These clots may then break off and travel to other parts of the body such as the heart and lungs (known as a pulmonary embolism).

If you are on a long-haul flight (one that lasts more than four hours), research suggests your risk of developing DVT can also increase. This risk is mainly due to sitting down for long periods of time, which can happen during any form of long-distance travel, whether by car, bus, train or air. 

Generally, your risk of developing DVT when travelling is very small– unless you have other risk factors for developing DVT such as a history of DVT, obesity, smoking, or cancer. If this is the case, or you believe you may be at risk of developing a DVT, talk to your GP before you travel.

There are some steps you can take to help reduce your chances of developing a DVT. Get up from your seat for short walks up and down the aisle and stretch your legs as often as you can. Drink plenty of fluids but avoid too much alcohol and caffeine-containing drinks like coffee, tea, energy drinks and soft drinks which can be dehydrating.

Some studies suggest that compression stockings can help to ease pain, reduce swelling and reduce the risk of DVT. Some people at higher risk of developing DVT during travel may need to have anticoagulant (blood-thinner) injections. Make sure you have talked to your doctor about your need for these precautionary measures, and be well informed about potential side effects (such as bleeding due to blood-thinning medication).

Jet lag

We all have an internal body clock that regulates when we feel sleepy and when we feel awake. When you travel to a different time zone, your body can readily adjust to a limited amount of difference in time and light. When the difference is greater than this amount there’s a ‘lag’ before your body clock gets in sync with the new local time. 

The symptoms you experience and the intensity of this jet lag tends to differ from person to person and also depends on the number of time zones you cross and the direction in which you travel.

To try and minimise the effect of jet lag, consider adjusting for a new time zone by sleeping earlier if you’re travelling east and later if you’re travelling west. Aim to start the journey well rested, and try and get enough sleep during the journey itself. Also, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and, limit or avoid alcohol and caffeine as both can affect the quality and quantity of sleep you need.

When you arrive at your destination, it’s a good idea to spend some time outdoors in the daylight as natural light can help your body clock adjust. Some people take a melatonin supplement (the ‘sleep’ hormone that helps regulate your body clock) as there’s some research suggesting it can help overcome jet lag. See your GP or pharmacist for more information about this and to discuss whether it’s suitable for you.

While you’re away

  • If you feel ill or an existing medical condition gets worse, seek medical attention straight away.
  • Unless you’re sure that the tap water is safe to drink, stick to bottled water that you open yourself. Make sure you stay well-hydrated.
  • Be careful not to drink too much alcohol – stick to the guidelines of no more than two standard drinks per day if you choose to drink.
  • Make sure that meat and fish is cooked thoroughly and that salads and fruits are washed well in clean water (which may need to be bottled or you could use boiled and cooled water to clean them) before cooking and/or eating.
  • Consider wearing an identification alert tag if you are allergic to certain medicines or if you have certain conditions like diabetes or asthma.

Helping you feel more safe and secure

Unless Australia has reciprocal care arrangements with your destination country, medical costs (the costs of medicines and treatments, for example) incurred overseas will not be covered by Medicare. Getting travel insurance before you travel is highly recommended, to help cover any unexpected healthcare costs that may arise should you get sick.

Make sure that the travel insurance policy you’ve chosen suits your needs, especially if you already have a health condition – read the product disclosure statement carefully. Go for a policy that will cover all medical expenses for injury and illness, as well as non-health issues, and emergency evacuation cover. Check that it’s valid for the whole time you’re travelling, especially if you’re going for a longer period of time. And make sure that everyone in travel party is informed about it. People with certain pre-existing conditions may need to pay a higher premium for travel insurance, so it is important to include this cost when budgeting for your trip.

Further information

Smartraveller
www.smartraveller.gov.au

Foreign embassies and consulates in Australia
www.dfat.gov.au/about-us/pages/foreign-embassies-and-consulates-in-australia.aspx

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Judith Ngai Judith Ngai Health writer Judith is a pharmacist and health content specialist.

Australian Government. Comcare. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and long distance air travel [Online] 2008 [Last updated Oct 2008, accessed Nov 2016] Available from: www.comcare.gov.au

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Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Self management: Health [Online; accessed Nov 2016] Available from: www.casa.gov.au

Firkin F Nandurkar H. Flying and thromboembolism. Aust Presc. 2009; 32: 148-150.

Qantas. Fly: Specific needs [Online, accessed Nov 2016] Available from: www.qantas.com