Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Dr Sarah Jarvis is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

8 min read

You’ve ringfenced the dates, booked your flights and are looking forward to the holiday of a lifetime. Everyone deserves a break now and again and we all want to come back with happy memories. But sometimes a good time needs a helping hand.

With a bit of forward planning, you can cut the chances of any nasty surprises while you’re away.

Planning a holiday

At Least 3 Months Before You Leave

Check if you need vaccinations for your destination. If you’re going anywhere outside Western Europe, the USA or Australasia, you may need vaccinations against conditions you wouldn’t encounter in the UK, or boosters of vaccinations you’ve had in the past.

It takes several weeks for your body to build up maximum immunity and you may need a course of vaccines. So the earlier you check, the better the chance of protecting yourself. Your practice nurse or local pharmacist can usually advise on, and offer, all the vaccinations you need. Some but not all are available on the NHS.

If you are unsure about the vaccines you might need, then be sure to read our post: What vaccines do you need for travelling abroad? This guide goes into detail about vaccines you need for travelling the world.

At Least 1 Month Before You Go

Check if you need malaria tablets.
Malaria is caused by a bite from a mosquito infected with a parasite called plasmodium. It causes serious illness and can be fatal. It’s most often found in Africa, much of Asia and parts of South America. Antimalarial tablets can greatly reduce the risk of getting malaria. For best effect you need to start them up to a week before you go, all the time you’re in a high-risk area and for 1-4 weeks after you get back.

The Fitfortravel website has malaria maps of every country, so you’ll know what you need. Your local pharmacist can advise you on which medication would be best for you and can sell you the tablets – they’re unavailable on the NHS.

Count your meds.
If you can, you should take enough medicine to last the whole of your trip, and a couple of weeks extra in case of accidents. If you don’t have enough, order a repeat prescription at least a few weeks before you set off. If you’re taking medication that’s hard to get hold of, you may need longer.

Check if you’re taking controlled medicine.
Your pharmacist can advise you. If you are, it’s essential to know the rules for the country you’re going to – some are much stricter than others. Always check with the foreign embassy in the UK of the country you’re travelling to.

Ask your practice for a doctor’s letter if you need one.
If you’re travelling with certain medicines, including liquids of over 100ml, injectable medications, and controlled drugs, you’ll need a doctor’s letter.

Do you need equipment to carry your medication in?
For instance, does it need to be kept chilled? Speak to your pharmacist about a special cool bag or travel medicine refrigerator.

Get your travel insurance.
Even if you’re travelling to a country covered by the GHIC (formerly the EHIC), you should still take out insurance as the GHIC doesn’t cover every eventuality. If you have a medical condition, choose a specialist insurance which covers your needs.

Do you need to take special precautions?
We have a host of guides on factors you might need to take into account. Whether you have diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, back problems, a history of cancer or another condition, you’ll find useful travel tips to help your holiday go smoothly.

At Least 2 Weeks Before You Travel

Contact your airline.
If you’re going to need special assistance at the airport or on board, make sure to reach out to your airline to let them know of your specific requirements. 

Check your shoes.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of walking, consider buying new trainers if the insoles in your current pair are worn. Sightseeing is no fun if you have blisters or foot pain.

Check the UK Gov website.
It has lots of country-specific advice about foreign travel, which is kept up to date.

Check the details of your nearest emergency facilities.
Your hotel might be able to advise about local providers if you’re taken ill while you’re away. However, making a list of the addresses and phone numbers of English-speaking doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and dentists offers peace of mind.

Packing Suitacase
Contents of First Aid Kit

When You’re Packing

Pack your medication in its original packaging.
Make sure any prescriptions you pack, also have a copy of your repeat prescription with it.

Pack your medicine in your hand luggage.
You can find out everything you need to know about travelling with medication from our guide on taking medication on holiday.

Pack a basic first aid kit.
Although you may be able to get many items when you’re away, the last thing you want is to be trying to figure out what the Greek word for diarrhoea is, when you’re poorly!

Remember that you’ll need to pack liquids over 100ml, and any sharp objects in your hold luggage. Sensible items to include are:

  • A selection of plasters, including blister plasters
  • Antiseptic
  • Sterile dressings and bandage tape
  • Tweezers
  • A small pair of scissors to cut bandages
  • Thermometer
  • Antihistamine tablets
  • Insect repellent (one containing DEET is best if you’re travelling to an area where malaria is a risk)
  • Insect bite treatment
  • Sunscreen (don’t rely on that old bottle lurking at the back of the bathroom cabinet – sunscreen goes out of date and is less effective over time)
  • Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (including liquid versions if you’re travelling with children)
  • Anti-diarrhoea medicine

Remember to pack a hat.
If you’re going to a sunny climate, remember to pack a broad-brimmed hat to protect your head (including nose and ears) from sunburn.

Loose clothing and long sleeves.
For hot climates, pack loose, floaty, breathable clothes to reduce the risk of prickly heat. Take long-sleeved tops and long trousers for the evenings if you’re in a malaria-risk region.

While You're Away

Follow sensible food precautions.
Even if you’re staying in a five-star hotel, the water your food is washed in doesn’t discriminate – and neither do the flies that land on it! If in any doubt, follow the mantra for food and water of ‘boil it, peel it, cook it or forget it’.

Be sun savvy.
Not all sunscreens are created equal, so make sure that the one you choose does what it promises on the tin. Severe sunburn can be painful and unsightly and increases your risk of skin cancer in the long term.

Avoid the sun at the hottest part of the day (12pm - 3pm), be sure to drink plenty of water and purchase sunscreen that boasts a logo with UVA and offers at least four-star UVA protection.

The NHS advises in choosing a sunscreen of at least SPF15 to protect against UVB rays, but the higher the factor, the better protection for your skin.

Be heat-safe.
Heat exhaustion, heatstroke and sunstroke can ruin a holiday at best and can be life-threatening at worst.  Take precautions to avoid too much time in the sun, or in very hot environments.

Make sure you know the signs to look out for and take steps to cool down as soon as you see any sign at all.

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