Before you embark on an amazing trip, it is always smart to check if there are any health precautions you can take. The last thing you’ll want is to get sick on your holiday! For that reason we’ve written down a little guide here.
Although you can find any recommended vaccines or preventive medicine on our country specific pages in the ‘Health & Safety’ section (see an example of Thailand), this page is here to give you some extra information regarding health and things you need to look out for when travelling in Asia.
Let’s start with the basics: vaccinations. There is a lot of debate about what vaccines you need and even if you should get vaccinated at all. We believe that everybody needs to make his own informed choice about this in conjunction with medical advice. Here at We Wander we are not doctors but as a general rule the vaccinations that most people get/are recommended for travel in Asia are as follows:
1. Hepatitis A
This vaccine is generally considered to be one you need to have if you travel in Asia.
This can be given as an oral administration (a liquid you swallow usually) or as a vaccination. You can also often get typhoid and hepatitis A together as one shot if you don’t want a whole arm full of vaccines.
In theory you can get this once you have already had an incident, such as cutting your foot on a piece of rusty metal. With that in mind you might want to skip this one and only get the shot in an emergency, but if you have decided to get vaccinated then it makes sense to just get it out of the way before you travel.
Most people get this as a child but make sure you have a booster if needed before you travel.
These are the bare minimum vaccinations you need to consider but there are also others like Japanese encephalitis that are recommended. You can find more information about these in our health and safety sections for each country.
Malaria is a disease spread by mosquitoes, can be an issue in Asia although this depends very much on where you are planning to go.
For most places in central areas, the risk of malaria is very low. That said, countries such as Indonesia claim to be malaria-free in only Jakarta and Bali so technically it exists in all other places. Similarly, Cambodia is free from malaria in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but if you are venturing further afield then in theory you may need to take anti-malarial medication.
In reality however, in many countries the risk of malaria is very low unless you go to areas that are really far away from civilization, such as deep jungle regions and so anti-malarials are not needed. The medication itself also does not stop you from getting malaria, but simply lessens the symptoms if you do become infected. The side effects of the medication can also be unpleasant, so you also need to take this into account.
As one of our writers, Aisyah, experienced:
“I took anti-malarials once when I went to Cambodia. As I was going to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh only, anti-malarials were not necessary but I was misinformed by my doctor. Within a day of taking them I felt like I had the worst flu/stomach bug of my life. I spent a few days in Bangkok throwing up without the strength to leave my hotel room and a cloudy day vomiting on a bus to cross over the border into Cambodia. Once there I went to several doctors who thought I had an illness and tested me for everything while hooking me up to a drip. In the end when all the labs came back negative and when I told them about the anti-malarials they advised me to stop taking them immediately. Within a day I was completely better but it ruined about a week of my trip. As I’ve heard lots to similar stories, I would advise anyone to inform themselves well before taking any anti-malarials”
At the end of the day, the best advice is to seek several opinions from medical professionals, read up on seasonal outbreaks where you are going, and weigh up the risks and make an informed decision. Malaria can be fatal and every year people do die of the disease in Southeast Asia, although the numbers are not high.
2. Dengue Fever
You are much more likely to get dengue fever than malaria when you travel in Asia. Also a mosquito-borne disease, dengue fever can also be fatal but is generally considered less serious than malaria.
Dengue fever is present all across Asia in both urban and rural areas and is carried by dengue mosquitoes that are identified by the black and white stripes on their body. It is myth that these mosquitoes only come out during the day and actually you can get bitten and infected by them at any time.
The disease is also known as ‘break bone fever’ and usually first presents with flu like symptoms. Muscle pain is common as is pain behind the eyes. Other signs include mild hemorrhaging such as nosebleeds and a rash on your body. If you get dengue you need to go to a doctor who will monitor your platelets. If they drop below 100,000 then you will usually need to be admitted to hospital and if they drop below 20,000 then you will need a blood transfusion.
There is no real treatment for dengue and no vaccine, although you need to go to hospital for an intravenous drip and regular blood tests. The best thing to do to avoid it is to be vigilant about mosquito protection.
- Use insect repellent. You can use a natural repellent if you prefer that uses citronella rather than DEET.
- Wear long sleeved tops and long trousers especially around dusk.
- Consider sleeping with a mosquito net over your bed.
- Be vigilant about keeping mosquitoes out of your bedroom and spray the room with repellent a few hours before you want to go to sleep. There are some good ones which are water-based and not quite as toxic as the regular ones.
3. Traveler’s diarrhea
When travelling in Asia one of the biggest problems you are likely to have is getting traveler’s diarrhea. Unfortunately, the chances of escaping this are slim, and you should make peace with the fact that this will happen at least once in your trip.
Traveler’s diarrhea is usually caused by contaminated food and water and symptoms include loose stools and abdominal cramps. It’s not usually dangerous but it is unpleasant and can ruin your trip for a few days. The best way to avoid it is to drink only bottled water and to be careful about what you eat. This doesn’t mean avoiding the local food, but just being choosy about where and what you eat. Some tips include:
- Eat at places that are busy with a high turnover of food. Then it is less likely to have been sitting around in the heat for hours.
- Check out a place before you eat there. How are they washing the plates, cutlery etc? It is reasonably clean? Are they preparing the food in a hygienic way? Often most street food places cook the food in front of you so this is easy to judge.
- Choose food that is cooked fresh in front of you over a high heat. Things like a stir fry are ideal and you are much less likely to get sick. Buffets where the food has been sitting around all day are a recipe for disaster, as are things like salads which may have been washed in contaminated water.
- If you want to eat healthy things like fruit and vegetables go for choices that can be peeled, like oranges, bananas etc.
- Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before you eat anything and after using a toilet. Be vigilant about this.
If you do get sick the best thing to do is drink plenty of water and eat plain foods (avoid fatty or spicy dishes) for a few days until you feel better. If you need to travel such as going on a long bus journey and you can’t change your ticket then you can consider taking medication like Imodium. This will not cure you but it will stop you going to the toilet frequently if you have to travel. If you can stay where you are then it is better not to take anything and just let your body heal itself.
Should the symptoms persist for a few days you need to see a doctor as there is a risk of dehydration, especially if you also experience vomiting.
4. Traffic Safety
For many travelers, one of the most likely causes of concern for your trip will be traffic accidents. Countries like Thailand have some shocking statistics when it comes to road accidents, and the reality is that people are killed every day on the roads in Asia, including foreigners. Take care when crossing the road and particularly if you rent a bike or motorbike. Don’t expect the standard of driving to be anything like it is in Western countries.
In case it doesn’t go without saying, always wear a helmet every time you travel by motorbike whether you are driving or a passenger, and always check vehicles like rental cars before you get in them. Don’t drive drunk, you risk not only having an accident yourself, but also being on the wrong side of the law.
Take care on all forms of transport including buses as these have accidents often, particularly on overnight trips. If possible take buses during the day and check to see if they look like they are in good condition.
5. Sea Safety
Another common cause of death for tourists in Asia is drowning. Take care when swimming in the sea as currents are often strong and it can be hard to assess how deep the waters are. Sometimes red flags will point out dangers, and if you see them it is best to take notice and avoid those areas of the sea or beach. Most beaches in Asia however do not have flags and many do not have lifeguards, so don’t count on there being anyone to help you if you get in trouble. Many tourist drownings in Asia are linked to alcohol so do not swim when you are intoxicated.
As well as strong currents, you should also exercise caution when swimming in the sea in Asia as the water can sometimes be extremely dirty, particularly close to tourist areas. Beaches are also often quite polluted and things like syringes are sometimes found in the sand so be vigilant and seek medical attention if you step on something and cut your foot as infections are common.
6. Snake Bites
Sri Lanka in particular is known for being one of the countries in the world where you are most likely to die from a snake bite, but many countries across Asia have poisonous snakes or other critters. If you get bitten then you need to seek medical attention immediately. Take care if you are trekking or are walking anywhere off the beaten track and water sensible boots and long trousers. If you do get bitten, try to get a look at the snake so that you can give a description to a doctor, although don’t endanger yourself further doing this.
7. Heat stroke
The heat in Asia, particularly if it is the dry season, lends itself well to heatstroke, so take care when walking around during the day and always wear a hat in the sunshine. Heatstroke is known to cause dizziness, vomiting, or fainting, so make sure to drink plenty of fluids especially water, electrolyte drinks, and coconut water.
8. Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness can be an issue in Asia in areas at a high altitude like Tibet and other parts of China and can occur from 3500m. Some travelers experience this if they fly directly to Lhasa from low lying areas so make sure you give yourself time to get used to increased altitude slowly and seek medical attention if you become ill. Symptoms of altitude sickness can include shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, a headache, vomiting, and feeling unsteady on your feet.
Please be aware of the fact that in no way we are medical doctors, our advice is solely based on our personal experience and therefore personal opinion. It in no way counters or disregards any medical advice you might have been given.