Safe travels: 10 injuries and mishaps to avoid on holiday

Dr Tom Charlton
Clinical Fellow at Bupa UK
11 July 2018

The warm summer sun is streaming down on you, the cool sea is lapping at your feet and you feel more relaxed than you have done for a long time. We all know those blissful moments when a holiday is going perfectly to plan.

As much as I hate to ruin this picture-perfect vision, as a doctor and seasoned traveller I should probably also point out the health risks of going on holiday. These can range from minor irritations to much more serious injuries. The great news is that with a little preparation, many of these issues are avoidable.

Here are 10 common travel injuries and mishaps, and my tips for preventing or managing them so your holiday can go without a hitch.

1. Blisters and sore feet

If your trip involves exploring by foot and sightseeing, you should rack up a good amount of daily steps in no time. This is great for your overall health but all that trekking could easily mean you get sore feet or blisters.

This can happen if your shoes or socks:

  • don't fit well
  • are too stiff
  • are rubbing against your skin
  • get moisture trapped inside them

To avoid any problems you should:

  • wear comfortable shoes and socks that fit well
  • keep your feet dry
  • adjust your footwear if you feel something rubbing on your skin

If you do get a blister, don't be tempted to pop it. Instead, shield it using a protective cover such as a blister plaster. In three to seven days you should find the blister goes away naturally. If the blister does pop, clean it with mild soap and water then apply an antiseptic gel. A local pharmacist should be able to help you if you want any advice about what to do.

In general, it’s a great idea to pack a spare pair of shoes in your suitcase. That way you have options and can adjust your footwear to your plans each day.

An older woman drying her feet with a towel

2. Sunburn

Sunlight is our main source of vitamin D, which is vital for our bone and muscle health. So there are definitely benefits to soaking up some holiday sun. But as I’m sure all of us know from experience, too much of it is a sure-fire way to get sunburned. Turning red isn’t just painful, it also increases your chances of getting skin cancer.

Here’s how you can avoid sunburn.

  • Wear sunscreen that provides good UVA protection (at least four star) and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or above.
  • Remember to reapply sunscreen regularly. This is especially important after you've been swimming.
  • Try to balance being out in the sun with being in shade.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and loose clothing to protect your skin.

If you do become sunburned, keep well-hydrated by drinking lots of water. It may help to take a cool shower or use a cold-compress on the area of skin that’s affected. After-sun creams and over-the-counter painkillers may also help to soothe the pain.

A sunburned woman using a cold compress on her shoulder 

3. Heat exhaustion and heatstroke

Staying out in the sun can sometimes lead to heat exhaustion, which is where your body temperature becomes really high and you start to feel unwell. You may feel sick or weak, have a headache, and feel irritable or confused. Eventually this can lead to heatstroke, which can potentially be very serious. If you have heatstroke your body may become unable to cool down. You're likely to breathe very quickly and feel very hot and disorientated.

The main ways to prevent heat exhaustion and heatstroke are to:

  • drink plenty of water
  • take it easy in the sun and avoid vigorous exercise
  • give your body time to get used to strong heat, for example by dipping in and out of the shade

If you do start feeling unwell in the sun, get into the shade and cool your body down, while drinking plenty of water. If you keep feeling really unwell or become worse, call an ambulance.

A pair of sunglasses and a sun hat on a table

4. Mosquito bites

Mosquito bites can be a real nuisance, but worse than that, in some part of the world they can transfer infectious diseases. Making sure you have any travel vaccinations you need before you go is important.

Keep mosquitoes at bay by using insect repellent. Look for the ingredient diethyltoluamide (DEET). You should apply this after putting on sunscreen, rather than the other way around. Cover up with clothing and use nets at night if you’re sleeping outdoors or somewhere exposed.

If you’re bitten by a mosquito, keep the area clean and dry to avoid infection. Try not to scratch the area and if the bite is red or painful, consider using a plaster or applying some antiseptic cream. In some cases you might need antibiotics if a bite becomes infected. Speak to a pharmacist or doctor if you’re worried.

A couple sitting next to a lake

5. Jellyfish stings

The big blue ocean might be beautiful, but it's also home to all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures. Among these are jellyfish.

With any luck, signs on the beach will warn you if jellyfish might be lurking. Keep an eye on where you're swimming or stepping if you go into the water.

If you are stung, you'll know straight away from the pain. Most jellyfish stings won’t cause lasting damage, but some types (particularly the box jellyfish) can be very dangerous. These are usually found in oceans surrounding parts of Australia and Asia.

If you have any to hand, rinse the area that’s been stung with vinegar. Don’t rub the area or scrape off any stingers that are still embedded in the skin. You can use tweezers to remove any tentacles from the top of the skin. See a doctor in any case, but call an ambulance immediately if you or someone else has bad pain or feels very unwell.

A jellyfish underwater

6. Muscle strain from heavy luggage

Injuries related to carrying luggage are more common than you might think! You can potentially injure muscles in your back, neck and shoulder by struggling with heavy luggage or not carrying it in the right way.

I know packing light isn’t always an option, but you can ease the load in various ways.

  • Use trolleys in airports and take lifts rather than escalators.
  • Try not to rush around with a heavy bag (difficult if you’re running late, admittedly).
  • When you need to lift luggage, do so carefully. Bend your knees and use your leg muscles to lift. Hold the luggage close to your body to help reduce the risk of injury.

If you strain a muscle, try to rest it. Over-the-counter painkillers and holding an ice pack against the area may help with any pain you’re experiencing. If the ache is still there when you get home, consider physiotherapy or speaking to your GP.

A couple reclining on a bed beside their luggage

7. Injuries from a new sport or activity

Many of us are tempted to try a new sport, or revisit an old favourite, while we’re away on holiday. It might be beach volleyball, horse riding, mountain biking or just the first game of football in years.

Getting back into sport is definitely to be encouraged, but make sure that you:

  • pace yourself
  • weigh up whether you’re fit enough to comfortably do the activity at hand
  • know when to take a break
  • use suitable equipment for any sport you’re doing

Stretching and warming up before you start may help to prevent muscle soreness.

A couple on the beach holding surf boards

8. Altitude sickness

If your holiday involves heading to a high altitude, you may need to prepare for altitude sickness. This is where breathing becomes difficult as you aren’t able to take in as much oxygen. Mild altitude sickness can feel a bit like having a hangover, which can turn into confusion as the condition becomes more serious.

The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to gradually acclimatise yourself by not venturing too high, too quickly. A good guide will be able to help you do this in a sensible way.

Still, altitude sickness can be hard to avoid in more mountainous parts of the world, as I know all too well having experienced it three times. You can read my blog about altitude sickness for more details about what happened, and about how to manage if it happens to you.

A couple climbing down a mountainside

9. Holiday drinking troubles

What’s your holiday tipple of choice? Whether it’s a mojito by the pool or watching the sun set with a large glass of red wine, do take care and follow sensible drinking advice. Drinks may be stronger abroad than you’re used to at home, and the measures are often bigger than the UK standard.

When you have too much to drink you may:

  • be more likely to have an accident, especially in unfamiliar surroundings
  • sleep worse and feel hungover and irritable the next day

Taking care near swimming pools and open water is especially important.

It’s always sensible to eat a good meal when you’re going to be drinking, to help slow down how quickly alcohol is absorbed in your blood. Try to alternate between alcoholic and soft drinks too.

A photo of a woman drinking in a bar

10. Traveller’s diarrhoea

I’ve saved the most glamorous one for last! Traveller’s diarrhoea is very common and is usually caused by an infection. The infection is spread by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your mouth.

To reduce the risk you should:

  • wash your hands regularly, especially before eating
  • avoid uncooked foods
  • drink water that has been purified (boiled or filtered) or which you’re confident is safe
  • pick reputable establishments

To find out more, see my blog about avoiding traveller’s diarrhoea.

Image of some prawns being sold on a food market 

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Dr Tom Charlton
Dr Tom Charlton
Clinical Fellow at Bupa UK

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