Many Japanese wear white surgical masks for health or medical reasons. They want to avoid spreading (or catching) germs or they have seasonal allergies. When I was in Tokyo last week with my sisters, we decided that “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” (at least long enough to pose for a photograph).
While we were having breakfast at a coffee shop, I asked them to give me their best travel tips and most of them ended up being related to the health and well-being of my student travelers. This was no surprise. They are experienced travelers and staying healthy on tour is uppermost in their minds. My twin sister, Dale, is an urgent care physician and the veteran of at least ten EF tours. My younger sister, Karen, a doctor’s wife, is a former medical office manager and the mother of a 24-year-old daughter who is a West Point graduate. Their advice comes from a variety of perspectives. And we all know something about taking care of students.
Over The Counter Medication
You first need to get your paperwork in order. Group leaders need to have their students complete a medical information form that lists any medications taken by students, both prescription and “over-the-counter” (OTC), any allergies to medicines or foods, a brief medical history, and the date of their last tetanus shot. You can create your own form or revise the one provided by EF. Group leaders should obtain a letter from parents giving them permission to dispense any kind of OTC medications, such as the ones for pain relief or for traveler’s diarrhea.
Many students take prescription medicines. If any student is on a prescription medication, then the group leader needs to have a copy of the prescription and aletter stating the purpose of the drug from the doctor who prescribed the medication.
This is required in Japan and it may be the case in other countries, too. These students need to pack their medicine in their carry-on bags. Some countries do not honor US prescriptions, so be sure students travel with enough medicine for the duration of their tour. This is especially important for students on the longer tour itineraries.
You want to be covered with the right paperwork if there is an accident or emergency. On a tour in Italy, one of my adult tour participants dropped his glass insulin vials on the tile floor in his hotel room. My tour director was able to take him to a local pharmacy and get his insulin supply replaced without any difficulty. He had a prescription with him and that no doubt eased the replacement process.
Many countries ban certain types of prescription and OTC medications. Group leaders should check the US State Department website for travelers to see if there are any banned medications in the countries they plan to visit. For example, Japan prohibits anyone from bringing inhalers and some OTC allergy and sinus medications. The penalties are severe and you cannot claim ignorance on these matters. The website also provides other health information and information about medical facilities.
Group leaders can also do some pre-departure research about the medical facilities available to tourists in the cities they plan to visit. More often than not, the hotel staffs have names of doctors on file who treat their guests and the information about the hospitals in their area. Your tour director may also be familiar with the available medical facilities.
Group leaders should pack a basic first-aid kit that includes: bandages, antiseptic wipes, ace wraps, moleskin (to cover blisters), tweezers, digital thermometer, non-aspirin pain relievers such as like acetaminophen, and ibuprofen, and anti-diarrheal medicine. (I pack Tylenol, Motrin, Imodium, and Pepto-Bismol.) You can also ask your students to pack their own personal first-aid kit.
Students also need to be proactive about being healthy while on tour and they need to start before we even leave the country. EF tours (and any kind of travel) involve a great deal of walking. My 77-year-old mother walks faster than any of my students. They would be unable to keep up with her if they tried to follow her around Tokyo’s subway and train system. Like so many Japanese, she wears a pedometer and easily racks up 10,000 steps (about 5 miles) before her day ends. I always tell my groups to get into a regular exercise program before we go on tour.
Here are some other tips for staying healthy on tour:
- On the flights, buy a large bottle of water before you board in case the beverage service is limited or slow.
- Avoid drinking soft drinks on the flights and stick to water and fruit juices. Skip the coffee and tea., too.
- Don’t skip breakfast at the hotels.
- Drink lots of bottled water.
- Wash your hands before eating.
- Carry hand sanitizer or individual wipes.
- Eat fruit whenever it is served to you. Buy fruit only if you can wash or peel it. Pack some dried fruit, especially dried plums (the new prunes!).
- Get enough sleep at night.
- Group leaders and chaperones can do a quick “health check” each morning and each night. (Do your passport checks at the same time.)
It is miserable to be sick when you are touring. Students should feel comfortable about telling their group leaders if they are not feeling well. A high fever (and any injury) warrants medical attention and the group leader needs to contact the tour director. It will be the responsibility of the group leader to remain with the student when a doctor is called or when they have to go to the nearest hospital or health center.
Sometimes a student just needs to stay put, rest, and have access to the nearest toilet. If a student is not feeling well in the morning, an adult should stay with the student at the hotel or on the bus if the tour is going to another place. If a student is not feeling well during the touring day, the student should stay with the group leader until the group gets back on the bus and goes to the hotel. If a student is not feeling well at night, the group leader needs to check on the student every few hours and provide the student with plenty of beverages and a light meal if the student can eat. If the student does not improve after one day, then the group leader should ask for assistance from the tour director to contact a local doctor or to go to a local hospital.
I have administered “tender loving care” (TLC) to many students who have become ill on tour. I keep my first-aid kit with me at all times plus a couple of “barf bags” I take from the airlines. Always have some plastic bags available just in case anyone feels nauseous. My students have suffered from colds, diarrhea, constipation, and vomiting. For the students who are prone to motion sickness, be sure they sit in the front of the bus. I always sit in the back of the bus, ready to check on any student and to offer that TLC. Sometimes an early bedtime can work wonders for students during a tour. Getting enough rest is just what doctor ordered!
Should you need to take a student to a local doctor or hospital, my twin sister advises not to expect to get a prescription for antibiotics. She says, “Everyone thinks every illness requires antibiotics. Antibiotics do not cure all illnesses. A cold is a virus and it will run its course. One-day body aches do not constitute an illness and do not require an antibiotic.”
The medical treatment you receive in a foreign country may not be the same kind you get at home, but you should trust the experts.
Travel puts your body under a great deal of stress and it can require a great deal of physical endurance. An EF tour itinerary can be especially grueling at times. I have succumbed to traveler’s diarrhea and severe colds while on tour. As the group leader, I have no choice but to keep on going. I do remember one tour in England where I stretched out on the entire row of seats in the back of the bus. I thought I would not live to tour another day because I was suffering from a bad case of what ‘s known In the United Kingdom as “holiday tummy.” I felt better after my students offered me some TLC.
Not every group leader is fortunate enough to travel with a medical doctor on tour. I never worry about my students when my twin sister is part of my tour group. However, when she’s not on tour with me, I follow the advice in this post. I hope you have a healthy tour!
In case anyone is wondering, I had a healthy trip to Tokyo last week. Despite all of the food I ate, I did not fall victim to the ‘Tokyo trots.” (I did experience a few aftershocks, but they were not a big deal.)