- Parents traveling overseas with children should know health risks and how to avoid them
An estimated 1.9 million American children travel internationally each year, and the number is increasing. In general, children face most of the same health risks as their parents, but the consequences can be more serious. Some conditions can be difficult to recognize in children, especially in those who aren’t talking yet. If you are planning to travel to another country with your kids, be familiar with the risks of travel to help them stay safe and healthy.
Diarrhea is among the most common illnesses experienced by children who are traveling. For infants, the best way to prevent diarrhea is breastfeeding. Older children visiting developing countries should follow basic food and water precautions: eat only food that is cooked and served hot, peel fresh fruits and vegetables or wash them in clean water, and drink only beverages from sealed containers or water that has been boiled or treated. Children should wash their hands or use alcohol-based hand cleaner frequently.
Diarrhea can be serious in infants and small children because of the risk of dehydration. The best treatment for diarrhea in children is to give plenty of fluids; there is usually no need to give medicine. Oral rehydration salts (available online or in stores in most developing countries) may be used to prevent dehydration. Over-the-counter drugs that contain bismuth (Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate) should not be used in children, and antibiotics are usually reserved for serious cases. A child who appears to be severely dehydrated, or who has a fever or bloody stools, should get immediate medical attention.
Malaria and Other Diseases Spread by Bugs
Children who travel to areas where malaria is a risk should take drugs to prevent malaria, just like their parents. A doctor can tell you which malaria medicine is best for your child. Many of these drugs have a bitter taste, but a pharmacist can pulverize the capsules and put the powder in a flavorless gelatin capsule. Because of the risk of overdose, malaria drugs should be stored in childproof containers and kept out of the reach of children.
Malaria drugs are not 100% effective, and other diseases (such as dengue, leishmaniasis, and trypanosomiasis) also are spread by insects, so children (and their parents!) need to avoid bug bites. Children should wear bug spray and long pants and sleeves. Permethrin can be applied to clothes for extra protection. At night, children should sleep in screened, air-conditioned rooms or under a bed net.
Rabies is more common in children than in adults because children are more likely to try to pet strange animals. Children need to be told to stay away from all animals; however, they also need to be assured that if they do get bitten, they won’t get in trouble and should tell an adult immediately. Any animal bite should be washed thoroughly with soap and water and must receive medical attention as soon as possible.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death in children who travel, and drowning is the second-leading cause of death. Children should always ride in age-appropriate car seats when traveling. Parents should plan to bring car seats with them because they may not be available in many countries. Children should be supervised closely and should always wear a life preserver around water.
Routine and Travel Vaccines
If possible, children should complete their routine childhood vaccines on the normal schedule before traveling overseas. However, if they must travel earlier, accelerated schedules are available for many vaccines. Some travel vaccines cannot be given to very young children, so it’s important to check with a travel medicine doctor, who should consult the child’s pediatrician, as early as possible before travel.