Stick It to Me: A Guide to Travel Vaccinations

No one likes going to the doctor or taking medicine or getting shots. (Taking shots maybe…)

But if you’ve ever been seriously ill on vacation (Me. 2004. Antigua. E. Coli. Worst plane ride of my life culminating in me laying in the floor in customs followed by being wheel-chaired through the Charlotte airport), you know that if there was anything you could have done to prevent it ahead of time – or stop it in its tracks – you would have done so.

With illness prevention as a fact of travel life, the most important thing you can do is plan ahead.

Many vaccines must be given several weeks in advance in order to be at their height of efficacy or administered in a series over a period of days or weeks.

When determining what vaccines you need when, the two best places to start are the Center for Disease Control and your physician, ideally one who specializes in travel medicine. The CDC breaks vaccinations down into three categories: routine, recommended and required.


Routine vaccinations are those that all children and adults are recommended to have whether traveling or not. These include such vaccines as tetanus, diphtheria and measles/mumps/rubella, among others.

Consult with your doctor or look to your prior medical records to determine when your last round of vaccinations or boosters took place. (Another good starting point may be determining what your college or university required for immunizations upon admission.)

Do not overlook diseases such as polio that were eradicated in the United States and for which you may have received a vaccine as a child. Such diseases are still active in other parts of the world, and a booster to your original vaccine may be necessary.


Recommended vaccinations cover diseases such as typhoid fever, Japanese encephalitis and even rabies, among many others.

Such vaccinations depend upon a variety of factors – where you are visiting, whether you will be spending time in rural areas, certain risks you may be taking while traveling, how long you are staying, the season of the year, your age and health condition and previous immunizations.

While the CDC offers guidelines by which you can look up the countries you will be visiting and their corresponding recommended vaccinations, this is likewise best discussed with a physician who specializes in travel medicine.


The requisite you-aren’t-entering-this-country-without-that-vaccine vaccine is rare. In fact, there are currently only two such vaccines listed on the CDC’s website:  yellow fever and meningococcal meningitis.

The vaccination for yellow fever is required for travel to certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South America. In order to enter countries requiring such vaccine, you will need to find an authorized clinic giving the vaccine who can issue a certificate of proof to that effect.

For meningococcal meningitis, the government of Saudi Arabia requires the vaccine for travelers entering the country during the Hajj Pilgrimage.

An Ounce of Prevention

Even when a vaccine isn’t available, there are many preventative measures you can take to ward off illnesses or put a stop to them once they start.

Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease for which there are several drugs to consider taking. The decision about which anti-malarial drug to choose is best made after a discussion with your physician weighing the side effects alongside the effectiveness.

Dengue fever, is also spread by mosquitoes, but unlike malaria, there are no magic pills. The best prevention is covering your arms and legs, sleeping under mosquito netting and using mosquito repellant containing DEET.

Here are some additional things to keep in mind before setting out on your journey:

  • Several weeks before your trip, begin taking a probiotic to help ward off any stomach issues while vacationing.
  • Educate yourself on foods to avoid in certain countries and when bottled water is a necessity.
  • Talk to your doctor about obtaining a prescription for an antibiotic to take with you as well as instructions for what symptoms to look for when considering taking the medicine.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of a good first aid kit.
  • And as for the aforesaid taking shots, you are on your own with that hangover.

Ever had a health scare while traveling? How do you feel about vaccinations? Do you stay up-to-date or wing it?

I originally published this article in Go! Girl Guides.