For many Minnesotans, summer means exciting travel and vacation plans. However, COVID-19 and other infectious diseases are still lurking and making people sick. The best thing we can do is protect ourselves this summer while we travel. 

There are always choices about potential exposures, says Beth Thielen, MD, PhD, an Adult and Pediatrics Infectious Diseases Physician with University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians) and an Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics at the U of M Medical School.

Before You Travel

Before you leave for your trip, ensure your vaccines are up to date. Specifically, children from six months up to 5 years of age are newly eligible for SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. Getting people up to date on their appropriate booster doses is essential. For older individuals who may have received the primary series a while ago, confirm you’re up to date with boosters.

Dr. Thielen encourages people to be aware of the disease circulation in the destinations they plan to visit. “Advice could be different if the circulation is low versus if you are traveling to someplace that has very high circulating levels,” says Dr. Thielen . 

For example, if there is a lot of disease activity, people can choose to eat outdoors as a safety measure, and people can choose to wear masks indoors. The most stringent kind of protection is to wear a KN95-style mask or another well-fitted mask. 

“I appreciate that those masks are uncomfortable and hot. The decision of when to use masks comes down to individuals weighing the potential risks and benefits,” Dr. Thielen notes. “Suppose you’re going into an area where you’re a vulnerable person with some underlying medical conditions, and you’re going into an area where there is a lot of circulation. In that case, taking those extra steps and wearing a good mask all the time makes good sense. If you’re a low-risk person going into an area with low circulation, you might opt for not wearing a mask or wearing a cloth mask.”

Another consideration is to think through your individualized action plan before going on a trip. This includes things like looking into your insurance coverage based on where it is you’re traveling. Because of limitations, not all insurance will work equally across borders.

“For people going on higher risk travel, think about insurance that covers activities in the event of someone becoming ill. This might include coverage beyond regular health insurance into things like evacuation insurance and cancellation insurance. These sorts of coverage are suitable for people to explore, particularly now as there's a lot of risk of infections and plans getting canceled,” Dr. Thielen explains. 

Depending on the location of your destination, in particular tropical locations outside of the U.S., it is often a good idea to consult a professional travel clinic before traveling due to unique infectious risks. 

Basic First Aid Items to Pack From Home

Maintaining a good supply of regular home medicines is vital while traveling. Bringing extra medicine and copies of routine prescription medicines is good practice. If someone needs to get those refilled while traveling, have health information available to share with providers because they may not have access to all your medical records.

As you make your list of first aid items to pack, consider these helpful items:

  • Acetaminophen and ibuprofen for pain relief and fever improvement for SARS-CoV-2 and other infections
  • Over-the-counter medicines for allergic-type symptoms include Benadryl© and second generation antihistamines
  • Medicine that provides symptomatic relief for gastrointestinal infections like Pepto Bismol©
  • Bandages for skin injuries
  • Thermometers to detect fevers and to document it for healthcare providers

“There are going to be some people for whom these medicines may not be safe, in which case your individual healthcare provider's advice overrides what I say,” Dr. Thielen adds. 

Returning After Your Trip

If you return home with symptoms like fevers, coughs and runny nose, get tested for COVID-19. 

Dr. Thielen also recommends that if you seek medical advice for new symptoms after traveling, it is very relevant and essential for your provider to know about any recent travel. 

“There are a lot of risk factors, and sometimes healthcare providers don’t always think to ask, so it falls on the patients to make sure to bring that up in any consultation,” Dr. Thielen cautions.

A Few Last Tips

Besides preparing for potential exposure to viral illnesses, it is important to remember these additional tips that will keep everyone safe while traveling. 

“One thing that doesn’t get talked about enough is road traffic accidents when traveling. Wearing seatbelts in cars and helmets on bicycles or scooters is important while traveling, not just at home,” Dr. Thielen advises. 

“If people have children, bring an appropriate size and fitted child safety seat. Be mindful of these types of risks,” she says.

“For heat-related injuries, stay hydrated and provide sunscreen. Another consideration is insect repellants. Deep-based insect repellents are very helpful in preventing diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and other insects when traveling,” Dr. Thielen explains. 

Besides SARS-CoV-2, other viruses are starting to circulate, too. If you feel sick, stay home and don’t travel.

“The risk is spreading to other people, so I encourage everyone to stay home and modify their activities if they feel ill,” Dr. Thielen says.

“Those are for people who even test negative for COVID-19. We know that the tests are good, but they are not perfect. Other viruses are spread by the same activities as SARS-CoV-2. Influenza (the flu), Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and Rhinovirus spread similarly, so if people feel sick, they should stay home regardless of the test.”

Even during the pandemic, people can take steps to protect themselves and have safe travels while on vacation. Making sure vaccinations are up to date and general preparations can help you enjoy your summer vacations to the fullest.