5 Ways to avoid parasites while travelling

Melody Wren 3 March 2022

Planning a tropical holiday? It's important to know the risks of catching parastical diseases before you head and how to avoid falling ill

When we travel, we have visions of adventure—tropical beaches and rainforests, wading in lakes and hiking on trails through streams and rivers—all to escape our regular lives.

None of us, however, envision parasites lurking in the flowing water or behind a salad leaf. Do you ever think about the after-effects of a mosquito bite or the consequences of stroking a camel, elephant or stray dog? If you don’t, the following information and recommendations will make you think twice.

Parasites are so common that Dr Andrea Boggild, Director of the Tropical Disease Clinic in Toronto, Canada says she goes through at least one prescription pad a day issuing drugs for anti-parasitic medication.

The World Health Organization (WHO) refers to parasitic diseases as “neglected tropical diseases”. According to Dr Boggild, “A safe estimate of the global prevalence of people with some sort of parasitic infection is between ten and 30 per cent of returned travellers who are ill or new migrants”.

If you are travelling to any high-risk destinations (which include Mexico, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Central and South America , Eastern Europe and some parts of the Caribbean), heed the advice in this article to prevent bringing back any unwanted guests.

Symptoms vary and are sometimes difficult to diagnose but left untreated can lead to long-term health issues. According to Dr Boggild, “Fever anytime within three months of returning from any high-risk destination is a medical emergency and warrants prompt attention to rule out, for example, a life-threatening malaria infection.

"Fever anytime within three months of returning from any high-risk destination is a medical emergency"

However, serious non-parasitic infections—such as typhoid fever, meningitis, and dengue may also present with fever after travel and should also be eliminated as possibilities. Additionally, any gastrointestinal, respiratory, neurologic, or skin symptoms that occur without fever but persist beyond a few days, and are moderate to severe in nature, should motivate a medical assessment.”

To avoid picking up parasites, there are a number of key things to consider when travelling:

Before you go, consult with a travel doctor:

Dr Boggild advises travellers to schedule a pre-travel medical consultation in order to administer and/or update needed pre-travel immunisations and to ensure that all relevant destination-specific preventive measures are considered.

Travel doctors have access to this specialised information. Make sure you go long before your trip departs to ensure you have the right meds in your system for the specified amount of time (eg, taking anti-malaria medication for at least two weeks before an African safari).

Be wary of water, whether drinking it or swimming in it.

Avoid waterfalls, freshwater streams, lakes and rivers to reduce exposure to a prevalent worm infection called schistosomiasis, second only in seriousness to malaria.

This applies everywhere but particularly in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, and northeastern South America. Unfiltered or unreliable tap water is a common source of giardia. Just don’t drink it. Choose bottled water or a trusted source.

Wear shoes and socks when walking on sand and soil: A risk of acquiring worms that migrate under the skin such as animal hookworm infections, known as strongyloidasis, can be reduced by covering your feet on the beaches and on soil.

Avoid insects and animals: Wear insect repellent to guard against flies and mosquito bites that can inject parasites into your skin. Use a DEET or icaridin-based insect repellent all the time. Don’t touch any kind of animal, however tempting, and don’t pet stray dogs and cats.

Select safe foods to eat:

According to Dr Boggild, Travellers may contract parasitic infections by a number of different methods, most notably through consumption of raw foods including salads, and any produce that is not easily washed (eg, berries).”

Fresh fruits and vegetables need to be thoroughly cleaned with a brush, including those with a peel such as avocados, bananas and oranges. You can pick up different types of parasites from contaminated food that hasn’t been handled properly. Avoid raw, unpeeled, or undercooked foods, particularly “street” foods, to reduce the risk of the most common parasitic infections.

If you think you’re immune to picking up a parasite, think again. These “neglected tropical diseases” are ones that most travel immunisations don’t prevent.

Melody Wren is a freelance travel writer based in Canada. Her worldwide travels over the last ten years have earned her a special seat in the waiting room at the Tropical Disease Clinic with a diagnosis of three parasites. This article includes input from Dr. Andrea Boggild, Medical Director for The Tropical Disease Unit in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Toronto General Hospital, Canada

Read more: 7 documentaries to watch in 2022

Read more: How to spend a weekend in San Francisco

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter