Measles and 6 Other Nasty Diseases You Should Worry About Catching While Traveling in the U.S.

Measles at amusement parks, remnants of bubonic plague and anthrax on subways, a new mosquito-borne illness – you might think these are nasty diseases you can catch traveling to third-world countries and far-flung places like India or Africa. But the truth is, this is all happening in the U.S. Here are the diseases, viruses, infections, and more you should worry about catching during domestic travel – and how to prevent them.

Related: Airplane or Giant Germ-Mobile? 10 Ways to Stay Healthy While Flying

1. Measles


Don’t end up catching measles on the road. (Thinkstock)

The scoop: Though the disease was long considered eradicated in the U.S., you have to be hiding under a rock not to know about the recent outbreak, which started at California amusement parks. The disease quickly spread across 14 states with more than 100 people infected. That’s because measles is one of the most contagious diseases out there – and it can live on surfaces and hang around in the air for about two hours, says Dr. Holly Philips, a general internist in New York City and CBS news medical contributor.

How to prevent it when traveling: All it takes is one contagious person on a flight or train to expose everyone – just a couple of weeks ago in New York, a college student with measles traveled across the state on an Amtrak train. To stay safe, Philips says make sure your MMR vaccines are up to date – if you get the two recommended shots, it’s about 97 percent effective. (Check with your doctor or the CDC’s website for guidelines on getting vaccinated.)

Other than that, prevention is similar to any other respiratory illness. “I like to tell everyone, keep your hands below your neck at all times,” says Philips. That’s because a common way to get such a contagious disease is touching a contaminated surface and then touching your nose or mouth. “No touching your face – if you have to wipe your nose, do it with a tissue. The less your bring your hands to your face, the more protected you are,” says Philips. Frequent hand washing can also help.

2. Chikungunya


Look out West Nile virus, there’s a new mosquito-borne illness in town. (Thinkstock)

The scoop: Chikungunya is a virus carried and transmitted by mosquitos, which causes symptoms including fever and excruciating joint pain that can last for months. Though the disease has been mostly a tropical one (found in Africa, Asia, India, and most recently Central and South America as well as the Caribbean), there have been about a dozen cases contracted locally in Florida reported in the last year. There were also more than 4000 locally transmitted cases in 2014 Puerto Rico and nearly 250 such cases in the U.S. Virgin Islands. According to Peter Hotez, director of the National School of Tropical Medicine, it is possible chikungunya could soon become even more widely and regularly spread in the U.S.

How to prevent it while traveling: There is currently no vaccine for chikungunya (or any antiviral therapy), so the only way to prevent getting it is to avoid mosquito bites. To that end, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends using insect repellants containing DEET (at least 20 percent), picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus, among others. Covering exposed skin by wearing long sleeves and long pants is also a good idea. Plus, it’s important to note that the mosquitos that carry this virus tend to bite during the daytime.

Related: Caribbean Blues: Mosquito-Borne Virus Is Sickening More Travelers 

3. Influenza


You could resort to a face mask on the plane. (Thinkstock)

The Scoop: Many people think the flu is as simple as the common cold and blow off their annual shots. But the illness is can be spread from an infected person to others up to six feet away – the equivalent of about three rows on airplane – and it can be deadly. According to the CDC, each year in the U.S. more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from seasonal flu-related complications and deaths can vary, anywhere from 3,000 to nearly 50,000.

This year the circulating flu virus (called H3N2) is particularly troublesome for two reasons: 1. It’s a nastier version of the virus than usual, says Philips, and 2. The vaccine offered wasn’t meant for this strain. Symptoms are similar to a cold – fever, a stuffy nose, sore throat, or congestion – but the hallmark is achiness, “feeling like you’ve been run over by a truck,” says Philips.

How to prevent it while traveling: First, get a flu shot at least a week before you hit the road. Even though this year’s vaccine is not a match for the season’s flu, it does work about 30 percent of the time, and it can also make you less sick and for a shorter period of time.

Also since the flu is so common and so contagious (on average 5 to 20 percent of the population gets the flu each year, says the CDC), make sure to live by the golden rules of not touching your face and washing your hands. Plus it’s a good idea to bring alcohol-based wipes for surfaces, says Philips. 

If you if you think you have been exposed to the flu or you’re in the early stages of the illness, your doctor can prescribe you anti-viral medications like Tamaflu or Relenza. “But the catch is you have to take them within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms for them to be effective,” explains Philips.

4. Lyme Disease


Camping or hiking are the perfect places to pick up ticks. (Thinkstock)

The scoop: This disease, transmitted by certain types of deer ticks, is predominantly a problem in the Northeast, some mid-Atlantic states, and northern California from late spring to early fall. Symptoms include achiness, and often a telltale “bulls-eye” or “ring” rash. Usually the disease takes a couple of weeks to heal with antibiotics, says Philips, but there are cases of chronic disease progressing to cause heart, nervous system, or neurological issues. 

How to prevent it while traveling: Whenever you spend time outdoors in areas where these ticks thrive, the CDC advises using an insect repellent with 20 to 30 percent DEET. However since experts have differing opinions on whether repellent actually deters ticks, says Philips, it’s also a good idea to wear long sleeves and long pants to help prevent them from latching on. When hiking, also stay to the center of trails to avoided particularly bushy or high grass areas. 

When you get home from a day in the woods, try to hop in the shower within two hours. But before you do, perform a full-body tick check with a mirror, since ticks that remain on your skin for 24 hours can transmit the disease. “Ticks can be as tiny as a freckle,” warns Philips, so you have to look carefully. “They like folds of the body, so pay special attention to arm pits, the back of your hairline, and your groin area. But they can be anywhere.” Should you spot a tick, remove it with tweezers under a bright light to ensure you get the whole thing.

5. Norovirus


Seasick? No just sick at sea. (Thinkstock)

The scoop: Norovirus is really a group of viruses, which are basically food poisoning, explains Philips. It spreads by contact (with contaminated food, surfaces, or people) and causes symptoms such as abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Cruise ships are infamous for norovirus outbreaks: In fact over 90 percent of diarrheal disease outbreaks on cruises are caused by norovirus according to the CDC, because the bug easily spreads in close living quarters, shared dining areas, and the large number of passengers.

How to prevent it when traveling: Wash your hands frequently, only eat fruits and vegetables that have been washed thoroughly, and stay away from uncooked and undercooked food (the virus can survive temperatures up to 140 degrees), especially shellfish.

Related: Another Norovirus Outbreak? What If I Get Sick on a Cruise

6. MRSA 


Who knows what you’ll catch on the plane. (Thinkstock)

The scoop: MRSA (technically, methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus) is a drug-resistant staph infection that can be life threatening. It’s spread through contact with an infected person or a contaminated surface. It’s pretty rare, but the bacteria has been found on airplane tray tables, according to University of Arizona microbiology professor Charles Gerba, who is also known as “Dr. Germ.” Other studies show MRSA can live up to a week on airplane seat-back pockets. But the biggest concern for MRSA is if you’re doing an sort of relief work or volun-tourism that has you in a medical or healthcare setting, says Philips.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a MRSA skin infection looks “like a boil, pimple or spider bite,” that may be red, swelling, painful, and puss-filled or oozing.

How to prevent it while traveling: MRSA enters the body through injured skin, so always keep any open wounds covered, says Philips. And never share personal hygiene items like towels, razors, or ointment. 

7. Fresh-water bacterial diseases


Waterfalls are beautiful, but they can make you sick. (Thinkstock)

The scoop: There are many forms of bacteria that thrive in the kinds of freshwater popular with travelers and vacations (think lakes, springs, waterfalls, pools, hot tubs, etc.). The most common is shigella, says to Philips, which causes symptoms like bloody diarrhea, cramping and fever. Another bacteria that can make you ill is Leptospira, which is most common in tropical areas like Hawaii and causes flu-like symptoms.

How to prevent it while traveling: Avoid swimming if you have any open wounds, do not submerge your head underwater, and don’t drink from freshwater sources without treating them first. Plus, heed any signs warning of or reports detailing outbreaks in certain bodies of water.

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