Peggy Ryan, a frequent visitor to Rome and an expat living in Italy, is a friend of our clinic and an international educator working with American students visiting Italy to travel and study. She also runs a travel blog called Gracefully Global. We’ve asked her to share the most common health complaints she hears from her students and her advice for staying healthy while traveling in Italy.
Nothing can ruin a vacation faster than being stuck in a hotel room because you’re too sick to move around. Or even worse, in a hospital. So far, so good; I’ve been lucky and never missed out on any big travel experience due to my health. Traveling is exciting so it’s easy to get distracted by what our bodies are telling us but staying in good health is essential while we travel so it shouldn’t be ignored.
My job is to remind my students to take care of themselves and to seek medical attention if they aren’t feeling well. Fortunately, most of the common health issues that affect travelers are preventable by great packing, planning in advance, and checking in with yourself regularly. I’ve included a list here of some of the health challenges that I’ve encountered and watched a lot of fellow travelers encounter frequently.
An overnight flight through multiple time zones is enough to throw anyone out of whack. Take a loss of a night’s sleep on the plane and compound that with inability to sleep due to big time differences, as well as a significant increase in activity levels from sightseeing adventures, and you might have a case of sleep deprivation and/or exhaustion on your hands.
How can you prevent this?
Avoid alcohol. Stick to a daily routine and make sure to dedicate enough time in your schedule for a full night’s sleep. Spend some time outside during the daytime to help your body get used to the daylight hours of the new time zone.
In more extreme circumstances, what I’ve mentioned above combined with the excitement and stress of your travels and a sharp spike in your physical activity can lead to fatigue. Many of the travelers I work with have the idea that their current trip is their one and only shot at seeing Italy, and subsequently, they push themselves too hard during their travels. But I just booked my latest round trip international flight for under $500, which is less than the cost of many medical treatments in the United States. Our adventures aren’t as out of our reach as we think they are, and certainly aren’t worth risking our health for. If you don’t have the time or energy to see everything on the first trip, you can always go back.
What can you do to prevent fatigue?
Keep in mind: it is better to see less and enjoy the experience as your healthiest, best self, than overdoing it, hurting your health, and not being able to enjoy the experience. Plan your vacation with your well-being in mind by leaving wiggle-room in your itinerary for a nap, a relaxing meal, or some quiet time. If you’re doing a lot of walking, take lots of water and meal/snack breaks throughout the day. If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, consider cutting your sight-seeing short so you can start relaxing early to prepare yourself for sleep.
Don’t underestimate how issues with your skin can affect your overall comfort level, but the good news is that skin issues are easily preventable if you pack well.
My students and I often suffer from mosquito bites during our travels in Italy, as air conditioning is not common, and windows aren’t screened. Lots of scratching of bites have caused cases of infection and major skin inflammation. Blisters are common due to the extreme amounts of walking, and sunburn comes from all of the sun exposure from being a tourist and exploring all day.
How can you prevent this?
Bring comfortable shoes that you’ve had a chance to break in so they won’t give you blisters. Pack good quality band-aids that will hold up against all the walking you’re going to be doing. Pack hats and light, loose-fitting clothing to protect your skin from the sun. Put on sunscreen every morning before you leave your hotel. Finally, bring bug repellant that you are ok with putting on at night, even when you’re sleeping, if necessary. Some repellant is sticky or oily or very strong-smelling, so you might want to experiment with a few brands before you leave for your vacation.
It is amazing how much a change in our routine can affect our bodies in the most basic and critical ways. If your normal routine is to sit in front of a computer, in your car, or in a classroom, you can have a bottle of water within easy reach. When you are traveling in a foreign country, your water bottle becomes a nuisance, often not fitting into or too heavy for your bag. But your body will need that water even more than ever, as it will be exposed to the elements all day, and, most likely, a lot more active than normal. It is not always easy to tell when you are dehydrated, so it is especially important to pay attention to your body and make sure you are hydrating regularly.
How can you prevent dehydration?
Ask your host or hotel front desk where the nearest supermarket is and stock up on water to keep in your hotel room, if you prefer drinking bottled water. Alternatively, drinking from the tap is totally fine in Italy (read all about Rome’s tap water here). Drink water when you wake up in the morning and at breakfast before you leave the hotel. When you are out and about, take breaks to buy bottled water at souvenir shops and cafes. Tip – if you buy water at a cafe, you can use their restroom, as public restrooms in Italy aren’t easy to come by. You can reuse your water bottle by refilling it at the fountains you’ll find in some of Italy’s major cities. Keep in mind, I recommend avoiding buying bottled water from street vendors in front of major tourist attractions. But luckily, in Italy, there is nearly always a cafe just around the corner.
Speaking of changes in routines, your eating routine will be just as significantly affected as your sleeping routine. What you eat and when you eat it will probably be very different than when you’re at home, and it is natural that your digestive system might be affected by this. Personally, I am most affected by the skipping of meals during my travels and the shifting of time zones, and my body’s expectation to eat at a certain time of day which no longer aligns with the current time. This has caused me a lot of stomach pain over the years, but I know how to anticipate and manage the problem, thankfully. Many travelers encounter bouts of constipation, and I’ve also heard of many cases of diarrhea, also resulting from anxiety and stress, and in other cases, a sensitivity to a change in diet, or not following a normal diet that was critical for their health.
How can you prevent this?
Talk to your doctor before you travel, because if you suffer from a digestive sensitivity when you’re at home, the stress and changes caused by traveling could agitate these problems. Try to be as true to the diet that works best for you as you can, and learn the words that you need to communicate your dietary needs by researching them in advance. Stick to your typical eating schedule, as much as you can. When you travel across time zones, count your waking hours and the time you will be asleep, and make sure you’ve gotten the food your body usually needs in that total amount of time. Pack snacks like nuts and energy bars that you can eat in case you won’t have access to open restaurants when you need food, but don’t rely on them for meal substitutes unless totally necessary. Drink plenty of water. Don’t be afraid to seek medical help if your symptoms worsen.
Doctors in Italy has been a huge relief for me and for the work I do, as having an English-speaking doctor clinic that I know and trust is so important, and often hard to find when traveling in foreign countries. If you are in Rome and are feel you should see a doctor, you can get in touch with Doctors in Italy to schedule an appointment by contacting them here.
Thank you, Peggy Ryan, for your useful tips and tricks!