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Going on vacation? Here's how to stay healthy

  • Story Highlights
  • Bring an antibiotic with you if you're worried about the food and water
  • Consider buying travel health insurance
  • Make sure you receive all of the recommended vaccinations
  • Swimming in the wrong place can give you all sorts of nasty infections
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By Elizabeth Cohen
CNN Medical Correspondent
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(CNN) -- While downing margaritas in Brazil one evening, Sheila Scott Hula's drinking mate suggested they "jazz up" their drinks with a little local liquor.

Philipp Gruner got food poisoning in China. Now, he always carries antibiotics while traveling.

Judy Armstrong broke her leg while hiking in the Amazon. Four Brazilians carried her out of the forest.

Hula, who's always ready for an international gustatory adventure, ordered some from the waitress, tossed it into her drink, took a swig, and all of a sudden couldn't breathe.

"I popped a Benadryl, but that didn't act fast enough. My chest felt constricted, and the people around me started to panic," she said. "Then I pulled out my inhaler, and that did the trick."

Benadryl and an inhaler are just two of the things Hula keeps with her at all times when she's traveling abroad. Hula, who spends four months out of the year outside the United States, also keeps antiseptic wipes with her always, as well as aspirin because, as she says, "It's hard to run to Publix in the middle of the night if you're in, say, Dakar, and have a raging headache."

I sought out Hula's travel health advice because as a journalist who covers the Olympics (she's in Beijing now), she visits 15 countries a year. I also went on CNN television earlier this week soliciting tips from other veteran travelers. Here are your tips, plus a few words from an expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

1. If you're worried about the food or water, bring an antibiotic with you

Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, an expert consultant in the division of global migration and quarantine at the Centers for Disease Control, recommends either azithromycin or a drug in the quinolone family, such as ciprofloxacin. You can get these only with a doctor's prescription.Video Empowered Patient: Watch more on staying healthy while you're traveling »

Philipp Gruner, an electrical engineer who travels frequently on business, learned this lesson the hard way.

On his first trip to China five years ago, he contracted food poisoning from raw shellfish and lost seven pounds in fluids in one night. Two colleagues carried him into a hospital.

"It was more like a high school gymnasium with nearly 200 beds in it," he says. "People were screaming and crying. The man lying to my right had a black leg. The young girl to my left was having severe stomach pains and was screaming in agony. There were no curtains to divide the beds, and they were so close I could actually touch the person next to me if I wanted." Share your travel nightmare stories

Gruner says that soon, a "tiny little nurse came over and said, 'I give shot now.' I nodded and before I knew what was going on, this little girl flipped me over, pulled down my pants, stuck the needle in my behind and flipped me back over again."

He was put on an IV for eight hours and "given horse-pill-sized medicine which I had no clue what it was ... when the IV was finished, I was given a small piece of paper and told I could go whenever I felt better."

Now, Gruner always carries antibiotics with him when he travels. Read the CDC's complete list of what to pack in your travelers' health kit

2. Consider buying travel health insurance

"Many insurance companies won't cover you while you're overseas," Kozarsky says. "And even if they do, you generally have to pay up front, and then sometimes, the insurance company will reimburse some of it later."

The U.S. State Department has a list of companies that offer insurance for overseas travelers.

3. Get your shots

Which you need depends on where you're going. The CDC has a list.

Your family doctor might not have all the vaccines you need. The International Society of Travel Medicine and the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene have lists of travel clinics. Many state health departments also provide travel immunizations.

4. Learn about your destination

The CDC has country-by-country information on health hazards, and the State Department does, too.

Take with you a list of U.S. embassies and consulates in case of an emergency. You can also register your trip with the State Department so the agency can find you easily.

If you're going someplace unusual, Kozarsky suggests joining the Listserv at the International Society of Travel Medicine. "If I'm going to Tanzania, I can go on there, and in a few minutes someone will chime in and say, 'Hey, I have a buddy there who runs a terrific clinic,' " she says.

5. Watch what you eat and drink, and where you swim

Here's guidance from the CDC about eating and drinking while abroad.

Swimming in the wrong place can give you all sorts of nasty infections. Judy Armstrong, who's traveled extensively in South America and China, says she dove into a river off the Amazon and instantly regretted it. "I wasn't using my head. I forgot there was a rural community nearby and that river was their sewer," she says.

It took three antibiotics to get rid of Armstrong's infection. For more swimming guidance, see the CDC link above.

Armstrong, who broke her leg while hiking in the Amazon, has another very simple piece of advice: Wear the right shoes.

Armstrong and Gruner have happy endings to their stories. After she broke her leg, Armstrong was carried out of the forest by four Brazilians (cost: $18) and made it to a hospital in Salvador, where she was stabilized (cost: $200) so she could fly home to Colorado, where surgeons inserted a plate and five screws into her leg (cost: a whole lot more than $200).

Gruner walked out of the Chinese hospital almost completely recovered. "I grabbed my wallet on the way out, but they told me there was no charge," he said. In the end, "I learned of the kindness and hospitality of [the Chinese] people."


Gruner's returned more than 25 times to China since. He hasn't eaten any more raw shellfish.

Got a comment or an idea for a future Empowered Patient column? We'd love to hear from you. Talk to us at

CNN's Jennifer Pifer and Erin Lindsay contributed to this report.

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