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Expert advice: Staying healthy in China

By Amy Chen
updated February 21, 2017

If you’re lucky enough to be attending the Beijing Olympics, now’s the time to think about health precautions—so that you don’t come home with more than just souvenirs. Follow these tips I picked up from Richard Wenzel, M.D., president of the International Society for Infectious Diseases.

Q: Are there any vaccinations travelers should get?

A: If you haven’t gotten a tetanus booster in more than 10 years, it’s time. It’s also wise to get vaccines for typhoid and Hepatitis A and B. (Shots should be taken care of at least two to three weeks before leaving. Get your first Hepatitis B shot at least one month in advance.) Tourists who plan to stay in the cities can skip the vaccine for Japanese encephalitis. Unless you’re visiting rural China before or after the Olympics, you won’t need malaria pills, either.

Q: What are some tips that you can offer regarding food safety?

A: Boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it. Avoid salads, raw fish, and ice. No dairy products—including ice cream—unless you know they’re pasteurized. And wash your hands before you eat.

Q: Since it’ll be very hot in August, do you have any advice on staying hydrated?

A: People need to know how hot and humid it’s going to be. Make a point to stop every two hours and hydrate. For me, it’s going to be carbonated water and sodas. With regular bottled water, there have been some reports of contamination. I’m not picking on China. They have also been some outbreaks in Europe.

Q: What can you tell us about traveler’s diarrhea?

A: About 50 percent of travelers to tropical countries (including China) will get traveler’s diarrhea. Half of those people will feel bad for three to five days. Others will be in bed for at least a day. Some people take Pepto-Bismol to prevent traveler’s diarrhea, but it’s not that useful once you have diarrhea. Imodium helps after you have it. For something stronger, go to a travel clinic in the U.S., and get some antibiotics to carry in case you experience diarrhea. These days, Azithromycin is more effective than Ciprofloxacin since strains of E. coli and shigella are increasingly resistant. Remember that you’ll need enough of the antibiotic to treat yourself for at least three days. You should be ecstatic if you don’t have to use the drug. And don’t forget: all medications should be packed in your carry-on.

Q: When do you need to seek medical attention for traveler’s diarrhea?

A: In terms of gastrointestinal infections, if you don’t have a fever, you’re usually in pretty good shape. It doesn’t mean you feel great. If you have really bad abdominal pain or blood, you need to see a physician right away. Seek out university hospitals, which usually have bilingual staff. You can also find the names and addresses of English-speaking physicians based in China by stopping at a travel clinic in the U.S. before you depart. The International Society of Travel Medicine has a directory of travel clinics.

When I visited Hong Kong a few years ago, I ended up in the emergency room—twice. It turns out I had managed to contract dysentery. The culprit? I suspect it was a bowl of congee that had spoiled.

Don’t be too afraid to try the food, though. A recent CDC study found that most travelers treated in China actually suffered from asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses more often than diarrhea.

Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, a CDC travel health expert, advises those with chronic respiratory problems to visit a doctor before leaving and to take extra supplies of any medicines or inhalers they use for flare-ups. Travelers who plan on jogging or exercising outdoors in Beijing will likely want to get an early start to avoid traffic-related pollution. And good old-fashioned hand washing can help prevent the spread of respiratory infections. You can find the CDC’s comprehensive guide to staying healthy and safe in China here.


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