Study abroad is an adventure of the mind and spirit. It is also an adventure of and for the body. Traveling is an exhilarating experience–it should also be a healthy one. Health-care systems and facilities in many overseas locations are quite similar to what we have in the United States. In other areas, however, there are differences and specifically recommended health procedures. You will need to take appropriate health measures as dictated by your overseas location.
There are many areas concerning health, which must be taken into consideration before departing on your study abroad program.
The Office of Education Abroad requires that all students on a study abroad program have a physical examination within 6 months of departure. This is for three reasons: 1) you will learn of any health concerns that should be addressed before you leave the country for an extended period of time, 2) you can talk with a Health Care Professional and ask his/her advice on your intended destination(s) and 3) to get the clearance to study abroad.
NMSU Students must take full responsibility for educating themselves on health and immunizations needed in consultation with their personal physician or a travel clinic.
Certain immunizations are available from the NMSU Campus Health Center. If your personal medical insurance does not cover the cost of travel immunizations, you may want to check with the Health Service to see if they offer the immunizations you need. It is important to begin early since some immunizations must be given in sequence at specific time intervals.
Be sure to have the date of immunization written out (i.e., December 1, 2014) instead of numbered (12/1/14). Confusion can result since many in the world would read this example as 12 January, 2014 rather than December 1, 2014.
It is a good time to update your health records, eyeglass and contact lens prescriptions and prescriptions for any medications you take routinely. Carry your prescription medications in their original containers and carry written prescriptions using generic names to facilitate filling the prescriptions overseas, should this be necessary.
It will be helpful for you if your prescriptions are accompanied by a letter from your physician, including a description of the problem, the dosage of prescribed medications and the generic name of any medicine listed to assist medical authorities during an emergency.
If you have life threatening allergies or conditions, it is very important to wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace and carry an identification card to inform overseas health care personnel.
It is advisable to bring a small medical kit. This could contain such items as: Band-Aids, ace bandage, thermometer, adhesive tape, gauze, sterile cleansers, antibacterial ointment and antiseptic cream, sunscreen, sunburn ointment, aspirin or other painkillers, and anti-diarrhea medicine. Depending on the region, take antihistamines for allergy relief, salt tablets, skin moisturizers and insect repellents. If you are on a group program, you may want to pool these items together to make a group first aid kit.
Assess Your Health
Going abroad is not a magic geographic cure for concerns and problems at home. Both physical and emotional health issues will follow you wherever you go. If you are concerned about your use of alcohol and other controlled drugs or if you have an emotional health concern, it is important to address it honestly before making plans to travel. Contrary to many expectations, travel does not minimize these problems; it can bring them to a crisis stage.
Identify Your Health Needs
Be clear about your health needs. Talk with your program adviser/field supervisor, the Office of Education Abroad and your on-site coordinator about allergies, disabilities, psychological issues, dietary requirements and medical needs so adequate arrangements can be made. Resources and services for people with disabilities vary widely by country and region. If you have a disability (physical or learning) or a special need, identify it and understand ahead of time exactly what accommodations can and will be made.
If you are taking antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications, it is recommended by physicians that you stay on them through the duration of your program, even if it would otherwise be time for you to taper. We encourage you to consult your physician on this matter.
Check Health Advisories
Changes to recommendations for health precautions can happen at any time. It is important to be aware of health issues in the country where you will travel. Check on the CDC website at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/ .
Flying While Sick
What happens if you are departing for study abroad program and you come down with a cold? The pressure from a head cold can make it hard to equalize the pressure in your ears when you ascend and descend. To avoid pain and discomfort, consider doing any of the following during ascent and descent: sit up, swallow, chew gum, stay awake, yawn or take a decongestant. If you are feeling ill in extreme cases, you may even want to postpone your departure a few days until you feel better and/or visit your physician. Costs to change flights may occur and are the responsibility of the participant. It is not enjoyable to begin your study abroad experience feeling ill.
To avoid some of the problems of jet lag (adjusting to the difference in time at the new location), there are a few simple rules to follow on the airplane.
- Drink liquids to avoid dehydration. Water and fruit juices are the best to drink. Alcohol will further dehydrate you during your flight and hits you stronger and faster on a plane. It can also cause joint swelling and make time changes difficult.
- Exercise: Stretch during your flight. If possible, stretch your legs. Some planes have extra leg room in the emergency exit seat over the wing.
- Set your watch: Change your watch to the new time when your flight departs. Think and eat meals on the “new” time. This will help your body’s adjustment to the new time zone.
- Sleep: If at all possible, sleep on the flight, especially if it is time to sleep at your destination. If you can find an empty row, lift the arm rests and stretch out. This will help you be awake when you arrive at your destination.
- Sleeping on arrival: When you arrive at your destination, it is important to adjust to the local time. If you arrive in the morning, stay awake until a usual bedtime (or at least until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.). If you arrive later in the evening, force yourself to go to sleep. Usually, if you get a regular first night’s sleep, you will wake at your regular time the next morning, and be able to function normally. Try to establish a routine sleeping pattern as soon as possible. There is a website with information about jet lag at: http://www.britishairways.com/travel/drsleep/public/en_gb
When You Arrive
Successful planning for a healthy program abroad does not end once you depart. Because of the differences between cultures, many adjustments, concerns and questions related to your physical and emotional well-being may still need to be addressed after you arrive.
Learn how to find medical assistance, whether routine or emergency, before the need arises. Is there a 911-style emergency number and, if so, what services does it access? Who will provide routine medical care and how can you reach that provider? If you need any special resources, find out how to get them. Is there a coordinator on-site who can assist you with finding this information?
We tend to think of being homesick as something associated with being young and at summer camp. But, anyone can be homesick at any time. It can come from just missing the familiarity of home surroundings, the regularity of college classes, an inexplicable anxiety about new places and just being outside your normal routine. It may not happen at all, may be a fleeting experience or stay awhile.
It may take a call home or talking to a friend or on-site director to sort out these feelings. One of the best remedies for homesickness is to plunge into the experience and become immersed into new places, sights and people. It is important to know that many have had these feelings and have gone on to have an exciting and rewarding experience.
To avoid accidents, follow traffic rules and use seat belts. This may sound very elementary, but traffic accidents are one of the most common injuries/deaths while abroad. Be aware of traffic patterns. It is easy to become confused in countries where drivers use the left side of the road.
In a world where medicine is growing increasingly high-tech, washing your hands often sounds simple. But hand washing offers the single most effective protection from the spread of infections. This may sound very basic, but if it saves you from a bout of illness—it is worth remembering.
If you have it, warm to hot water is generally recommended, but the 15-20 seconds you spend washing your hands is more important than the temperature. The new liquid sanitizers are not substitutes for hand washing. They can reduce the number of bacteria and viruses remaining on your hands, but are not as effective as washing.
Alcohol Consumption & Drug Use
Alcohol and drug use are the major cause of health problems and death overseas, particularly on study abroad programs. This includes serious injuries, sexual assault, date rape and drownings. You are in a different culture with different laws governing drinking and drugs. Alcohol and drug use can affect your ability to comprehend dangerous situations. This can be compounded by language and cultural differences.
If you are a recovering alcoholic, it is important to be aware of the stress of going overseas. If you are on a program with a family stay, it could be helpful to inform the program director who could place you in a non-drinking family. A listing of AA meetings abroad can be found at www.aa.org
Drug laws are strictly enforced in many foreign countries. Never transport or deliver a package for anyone. If the package turns out to contain drugs, you can be arrested even if you were ignorant of its contents. To be safe, stay away from illegal drugs or anyone who uses or sells them.
HIV/AIDS/Hepatitis B and C
Everything you already know about AIDS and Hepatitis B and C is as true overseas as it is at home. Taking the advised precautions is the only protection. Many developing nations do not have resources for mandatory blood screening. Thus, it is important to avoid or postpone any blood transfusion unless absolutely necessary. If you do need blood, try to ensure that screened blood is used. Many foreign countries reuse syringes, even disposable ones. It is best to avoid injections unless absolutely necessary. If an injection is required, verify that the needles and syringes come directly from the package or are properly sterilized. If the situation arises that you need extensive treatment or surgery, medical evacuation should be carefully considered. If you are sexually active, it is very important to ALWAYS use a latex condom. Take them with you, as condition, manufacturing and storage in other countries may be poor.
If you are HIV or Hepatitis B/C positive, review the policies of the country(ies) you plan to visit. Each country may have specific entry requirements, or requirements regarding carrying medicines. Know these before leaving.
Rabies is more common in developing countries, but should not be ignored in developed countries. Rabies is ALWAYS fatal, unless treated. Once the symptoms are exhibited, there is NO treatment. It is important NOT to play with unknown cats, dogs and trained animals, such as monkeys. If you are bitten, seek medical assistance immediately.
New treatments are effective if administered within 48 hours and are relatively painless. In some countries, the new vaccine is not available, requiring the student to return to the U.S. for treatment. An example of this is that during one semester at another university, three students, in separate incidents were treated for Rabies. Two were treated at their sites and one could not be treated in-country and had to return home for treatments and losing interim credit.
If you become sick when you return from your study abroad experience, it is important to contact your doctor. Sometimes illnesses first appear weeks after your initial exposure. Also inform medical personnel where you have studied. There are many diseases that are indigenous to foreign countries with which U.S. trained doctors are unfamiliar.
It is recommended that you have a TB test 3 months after your return from any program abroad. TB is on the rise in the US and many other countries and can be treated more easily if discovered before the disease becomes active.
BE CAREFUL AND USE COMMON SENSE. MOST IMPORTANTLY, STAY HEALTHY SO YOU CAN MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR STUDY ABROAD EXPERIENCE.
Portions excerpted from Peterson’s Study Abroad Guide, “Can I Drink the Water” by Joan Elias Gore,
“Health and Safety Issues for Study abroad program Managers” by Mickey Hanzel Slind
and Council/Council Travel by Juan Carlos Garcia and Alejandro Martinez, Ph.D, Cowell Student
Health Center, Stanford University, and “It’s your World: Student’s Guide to Education Abroad” by Bill Hoffa