The 5 Most Common Travel Diseases That Can Be Fatal (And What to Do If You Bring One Home)

Photo credit: Dan Queiroz

Photo credit: Dan Queiroz

Normally, I wouldn’t announce this but…I’ve been around -- around the world, that is. And while I try to be as careful as possible, it’s not always possible. As a devout globetrotter, I travel a lot; I’ve made a home on four continents, traveled to six, and visited every state in the U.S. I also travel quite a bit as an Oyster hotel investigator; I’ve spent the better part of this year in sun-drenched, (sometimes sticky) beachside vacation spots from Aruba to Sri Lanka. I’m an adventurous eater, mosquitoes love me, and I’ve shared a fair number of long-haul flights with people coughing all over me. But, I’ve never once brought back an unwanted souvenir living in my body -- until now.

And, after doing a borderline obsessive amount of research, I’m shocked at how easy it is to catch something while traveling. Warm beaches, lush tropical jungles, exotic safaris, adrenaline-soaked nature trips; these places are filled with oodles of idyllic scenery including turquoise blue waves, verdant landscapes, wild animals, and powder-soft sands, but they can often be found in less developed countries with hot climates, lower sanitation regulations, undrinkable tap water, a lack of quality fresh foods, and ideal breeding grounds for every type of mosquito imaginable! No wonder most of the world’s most common infectious diseases hang out here -- it’s paradise! But you don't even have to go abroad to be at risk. One of the most common infectious diseases is found in 14 U.S. states! And while not common, we've had a few old-timey diseases reappear just this year alone --like measles in Disneyland, the plague in Colorado, and more.

Check out our list of the five most common diseases you can pick up while on vacation (that can actually kill you) and what to do if you think you’ve brought one home.

1. Malaria

Old Newspaper Cartoon about Malaria; Photo credit: VCU Tompkins-McCaw Library Special Collections

Old Newspaper Cartoon about Malaria; Photo credit: VCU Tompkins-McCaw Library Special Collections

Malaria is a dangerously common blood-parasite disease spread by over 20 different species of the Anopheles mosquito. Initial symptoms include fever, headache, chills, and nausea; the diseases progresses quickly, and can be fatal. While Malaria-related deaths have nearly halved in the last 15 or so years, there were still between 124 to 283 million estimated cases of infection reported at the end of 2014 for the previous year -- with an alarming mortality rate of around 25 percent. According to the World Health Organization, you can contract malaria from 97 different countries around the world, though it is most common in Africa.

What to Do: While there is no approved vaccine for malaria, there are preventative antimalarial pills you can take, though, they can have unpleasant side effects and people often weigh the risk versus reward when choosing one. If you think you’ve brought one of these four nasty blood parasites home, go to the doctor immediately, tell them where you’ve just traveled to, and get tested. Catching it early is key and treatment includes a run of antiviral medication, rest, and keeping yourself hydrated.

2. Schistomiasis

Imagine thousands of these crawling around inside your blood; Photo credit: Jessica Lucia

Imagine thousands of these crawling around inside your blood; Photo credit: Jessica Lucia

Also known as bilharzia, this fast-appearing (and infecting) water-borne disease is caused by parasitic fluke worms infiltrating your bloodstream. While it may seem hard to catch -- you’ve got to be exposed to a water source (including untreated drinking water) where an infected person has had a bowel movement consisting of the parasite’s eggs, which have then hatched and been released as larvae by a snail -- it’s much more common than you think. In 2013, close to 40 million people across 78 countries were infected with these squirmy blood parasites. So, you may want to rethink that whitewater rafting trip along the Zambezi (though it is unbelievably beautiful) as highest risk areas are large water sources, like rivers in various regions of Africa. However, travelers to infected parts of South America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean are also at risk. 

What to Do: If you are exposed to contaminated water, there’s nothing outside of luck of the draw to prevent these worms from invading your body, but if you develop itchy skin, a rash on water-exposed parts of your body, cough, fever, or muscle aches, you can try to put the heat on to get rid of them. Five minutes in a hot bath of at least 122 degrees Fahrenheit should do it -- or a two-day medicinal treatment.  

Related Link: The Terrifying Truth Behind Hotel Cleaning Practices

3. Lyme Disease

Those of you who watched The Real World: Seattle got one of the first glimpses of this then hard-to-diagnose (and still hard-to-treat) disease that was also fairly unknown to the general public. Unfortunately, thanks to blood-thirsty ticks and medical discoveries over time, the number of known Lyme cases has skyrocketed to up to three million reported cases each year. It is the most common tick-borne illness in the United States, with concentrated occurrences in the northeast states. Outside of the U.S., it can also lurk inside ticks found in forest-laden areas (read: campsites) across Europe and Asia. Most initial symptoms are flu-like aches, fever, chills, headache, and a tell-tale bulls-eye rash that can appear anywhere on the body.

What to Do: There is no vaccine for Lyme disease, so you’ll just have to be vigilant about avoiding forested areas and checking yourself for ticks if you do find yourself in the woods. If you discover a tick, remove it immediately (holding a hot matchstick to it can do the trick), try to bag it or snap a selfie with it to show the doctor), watch for symptoms, and make an appointment ASAP so your doctor can perform a blood antibody test. Treatment includes a dose of strong antibiotics. Long-term symptoms of untreated Lyme disease can include inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, Arthritic-like joint pain, Bell’s palsy, and irregular heartbeat. 

4. Typhoid Fever

Microscopic look at the Typhoid bacteria, Samonella typhi; Photo credit: Sanofi Pasteur

Microscopic look at the Typhoid bacteria, Samonella typhi; Photo credit: Sanofi Pasteur

Not to be confused with severe food poisoning, Typhoid fever is a food-or-drink-borne illness caused by the Salmonella Typhibacterium. As it’s only able to survive in humans, the only infectors are humans. More bluntly, the bacterium is excreted through feces and urine of an infected person. You're more likely to be exposed in developing countries like India and Egypt, where there is likelihood of sewage-contaminated water used for preparing food and/or drinking, and infrequent washing of hands. Worldwide, there are over 21 million cases of Typhoid a year, resulting in about 200,000 deaths. According to the CDC, travelers from the United States and a few other industrialized countries are especially at risk. Most people from the U.S. contract Typhoid from Mexico and South America, probably since we do tons of travel there. 

What to Do: Symptoms can include high fever, constipation or diarrhea, general malaise, enlarged spleen and liver, and a rose-colored rash, usually found on the chest. Luckily, there is a vaccine -- though no vaccine is 100-percent bulletproof. If you end up tucking into a questionable dish while traveling in an affected area, at least there’s the solace that, since this is a bacterial infection, it can be treated with antibiotics, though some resistance has been found. It’s also good to note that even if recovered, a once-infected person can still be a carrier of the bacteria.

More Travel Scaries: Local Traditions That Can Kill You

5. Influenza

Porky the Swine; Photo credit: Bearman2007

Porky the Swine; Photo credit: Bearman2007

The flu is one of the most common -- and most contagious -- diseasesin the world. Unlike the other bummer souvenirs on this list, the flu is the only one that is airborne, meaning it’s transmitted through the air we breathe, making it oh-so-much harder to avoid -- especially on long flights or in other tight, shared spaces. What’s worse is that there are several types and sub-types of the flu out there (we all remember when swine flu and bird flu broke out), it can easily mutate making it hard to treat, and it circulates seasonally, All. Year. Long. No wonder up to 10 percent of the world’s adult population and up to 30 percent of children become infected each year. With such a high infection rate, it’s not unbelievable that between three and five million cases turn severe with, sadly, around a quarter- to half-million resulting in death.

What to Do: Since you can’t walk around in a bubble, the best thing you can do is get your annual flu shot vaccine. If you skip the jab or end up getting a heavy dose of the virus anyway, fingers crossed it’s a type that is treatable with a flu-specific antiviral, like Tamiflu -- and that your country distributes this medication. Visit your doctor immediately and take extra precautions so as not to infect anyone else. 

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