We all love a good travel souvenir. But an infectious disease is not something you want to bring home or, worse still, try to treat in a foreign country. So when planning a trip to an unfamiliar place, investigate whether you need to get vaccinated before traveling.
You might be fine, but you might also encounter diseases that are rare in the United States — diseases that could ruin your trip or end your life. You could face illness from contaminated food or water, or from high altitude. You might be at extra risk because of a medical condition, or you might simply be behind in your regular vaccinations. A travel medicine consultation can help you sort this out and prepare to travel as safely as possible.
Figuring out whether you need a vaccine to travel is an important step to take several months before you leave. Some vaccines are delivered as a series, and some take time to work. Depending on what kind of vaccines you need and where you live, a physician may need to special-order an immunization. Getting vaccinated before traveling also allows you to ride out any possible side effects before your trip.
So as soon as you book a trip, go to the Destinations page of the CDC’s Travelers’ Health website and plug in the country you’re visiting to find out what vaccines you should get before traveling; you’ll land on a page that recommends immunizations and medications specific to your journey. It’s as important as any other travel safety tip.
Now that you’re armed with this important information, you have several options for getting vaccinated before traveling.
Steps to Getting Vaccinated Before Traveling
A travel clinic is your best resource. This is a group of doctors and nurses who specialize in travel medicine and preventive care. Your city may have an independent travel clinic, or your local, county or state health department may offer one. The CDC has a travel clinic directory where you can search by the type of travel vaccine you need — important because the yellow fever vaccine isn’t offered everywhere.
(If you’re looking for a travel clinic outside the United States, the International Society of Travel Medicine offers an online directory of global travel clinics.)
Be sure to check with your primary care physician or medical insurer as well; they may be able to connect you with travel medicine professionals, and the cost of some of your medications or immunizations may be partially covered. This is helpful, because the costs can add up. Even if your family doctor or insurance company can’t help, be sure you secure a list of your previous vaccinations from your family doctor — your travel doc will need it.
Set an appointment for a consultation with a travel clinic at least six weeks before your trip. The doctor or nurse with whom you speak will ask a lot of questions about where you’re going and what you’ll be doing so that they can better assess your risk, so have your itinerary handy. They can then provide guidance about managing that risk — whether from insects, which can be fatal in rural areas, tropical areas and Third World countries; from water or certain foods; or even from touching dogs or other animals. It goes way beyond vaccines.
Your medical professional also can prescribe preventive drugs that you can take on your trip in case of infection or stomach sickness; things that can save your trip or save your life.
I have a booklet from my first visit to a travel clinic in Fort Wayne, Indiana, before my trip to China. It has space for recording all of my vaccines, and it includes tips for healthy travel and a first-aid checklist. I’ve updated it whenever I get vaccinated before traveling. Super handy!
During my consultation in Denver to prepare for my trip to Peru, this made it easy to provide the travel medicine doctor with a full list of what inoculations I’d had, as well as ask about what I might still need to get vaccinated before travel based on the CDC list. Because Kaiser is both my medical network and my insurer, the travel doctor was able to update my personal medical history with my immunization history, as well as call in orders for vaccines and medications to the medical office near my home at discounted prices.
While I got a slew of vaccines before trips to China and Uganda several years ago, DTaP and typhoid both require regular boosters. (Which is not unusual; in fact, when you were a baby, you probably had three DTaP vaccines, then two more as a toddler and child, followed by DTaP boosters as you got older. COVID is not the first disease to require a series of vaccines.) So I rolled up my sleeves and got some fresh “armor.”
I’ve had fantastic experiences with travel clinics. My consulting physician for Peru even shared his experiences backpacking in the region. Travel clinic docs are often adventurers too, so when you’re getting vaccinated before traveling you might also learn a little history of the region, get great tips for helpful gear or score recommendations for places to visit.
More importantly, a travel clinic doctor or nurse can tell you vital details such as how to manage mosquitos (what percentage of DEET is necessary, whether you need to treat your clothes with permethrin and sleep under a net), whether you can drink the water or use it to wet your toothbrush, and what foods or activities can harbor hidden deadly bacteria. Set aside some time for your consultation, and be prepared to take notes.
Many travelers are unaware of or don’t see the need for getting vaccinated before traveling. And if you’re only visiting major cities in First World countries, you’ll likely be fine without this extra precaution. But when your sense of adventure takes you off the beaten (paved and heavily trafficked) path, managing risk is a little more complicated. Talk to a travel medicine professional; it’ll allow you to enjoy your trip more when you know that you’ve been smart about the potential hazards.
So explore getting vaccinated before traveling, and bring home some fun souvenirs instead…or at least a lot of great photos. And protect your health for future fabulous adventures.
The views expressed on this website represent the opinions of the authors; we encourage you to form your own opinions and confirm any facts.