Travel Sick: 5 Travel-Related Infections

travel sick

As the warm weather of spring approaches, many look forward to packing their bags and zipping off to an exotic locale.

However, travel is not always a disease-free proposition. Indeed, numerous media reports have cited potential risks from infectious diseases that you could catch while traveling -- from the common cold to tuberculosis.

"There are 229 countries in the world, and there are different diseases in every country," said Dr. David Freedman, professor of geographic medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and director of UAB's Traveler's Health Clinic.

Of course, not all of these threats are terribly serious, or even likely. But others can be the worst thing to happen to your beach vacation since the unexpected, week-long thunderstorm.

So which infections should you be worried about? Which fears should you dismiss? And what can you do to keep yourself healthy during your time away from home?

The following pages feature some infections that have gotten media attention in the past -- as well as how to deal with these often-microscopic travel foes.

By Air: Scabies

Last Thursday, reports emerged that several Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel at Boston's Logan International Airport were found to have been infected with scabies -- an itchy condition brought about by an infestation of the skin with mites.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these microscopic critters can be passed through skin-to-skin contact. Once transmitted, the mites burrow into the upper layers of the skin and lay their eggs there.

In addition to bringing on an intense itch, scabies is a condition known for its pimple-like skin rash.

"Since the 14th of March we had eight suspected cases of scabies," said TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis.

On Wednesday, Davis said that testing revealed that only two of these suspected cases among security personnel were confirmed to be scabies. One was in a worker at a security screening checkpoint, who was involved in body searches on some passengers. The other, who was found to have had a milder case, worked as a behavior detection officer and had no physical contact with passengers.

Davis added that since TSA officers wear gloves while on duty, it is unlikely that the infection could have been passed along. Still, she said, the TSA took a number of precautionary measures in response to the cases, including an order for TSA employees to wash all of their clothes and uniforms and a thorough cleaning of the checkpoint.

Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and travel disease expert, agreed that even passengers who we screened by this worker likely have little to worry about.

"The threat, I think, is pretty low because the contact is pretty transient," he said. "It takes a little while for the parasites to get from one person to another.

"The risk to travelers -- even if the traveler got patted down -- must be very low."

How to Protect Yourself

Even though the chance of getting scabies at an airport may be relatively low, Schaffner said that there are still precautions that people can take to avoid the bugs in their day-to-day lives.

Among these precautions, he said, is to make sure that you do not share any clothes with someone who is infected with scabies. You should also try to avoid being in close proximity to them, such as when you are sleeping beside them in a bed.

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