Canadians love the Caribbean: They made almost 3.5 million visits to Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas in 2014, the most recent year for which Statistics Canada data is available.
Still, even luxury resorts can carry a few common health risks. If you're getting ready to hit the beaches during March break next week, here are 10 tips to keep you healthy under the sun:
1. Careful with food and water
Food- and water-borne illnesses are the single biggest health risks to travellers, says Dr. Jay Keystone, medical director at Medisys Travel in Toronto. He recommends avoiding tap water and ice cubes at resorts, as well as salads, food from street vendors and unpasteurized dairy products.
"You're going to be at some risk, no matter what you do," says Keystone. But proper hygiene, especially washing your hands or using hand sanitizer before meals, can help mitigate that risk.
2. Make sure you've been vaccinated
Hepatitis A and B are the key vaccinations for travellers to the Caribbean, according to Keystone. Hepatitis A is transmitted through contaminated food and water, while Hepatitis B can be transmitted through unsterilized injections or sexual contact. Typhoid is another vaccine option, although it's less likely to be required for travel to a resort.
Some travellers also choose to get an oral vaccine called Dukoral, which protects against enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC), a common cause of bacterial diarrhea.
Although a malaria vaccine was recently approved in Europe, it's not yet available in Canada. Malaria pills are an option, although Keystone says they're more necessary for travellers to remote areas — especially new Canadians returning to their home country to visit friends and relatives.
3. Keep mosquitos away
Anti-mosquito measures can help protect against tropical diseases like malaria, zika, chikungunya or dengue — not to mention secondary skin infections caused by scratching.
Vacationers are at less risk from mosquito-borne disease at high-end resorts, which tend to spray surrounding areas for mosquitos, says Assunta Uffer-Marcolongo, president of the non-profit International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers.
"As soon as you go outside [the resort], naturally you're more at risk," says Uffer-Marcolongo.
Keystone notes it's important to put on insect repellent after applying your sunscreen — or risk the double indignity of itchy bug bites on top of a sunburn.
4. Keep it clean
Food-borne illness isn't the only health threat that can be mitigated by good hygiene.
Even pristine Caribbean beaches can carry the risk of cutaneous larva migrans, parasites that live in stray dogs and cats. Those parasites can be transmitted to human skin through the sand, by way of animal feces.
"When you come back from the beach, you actually should shower and vigorously wash yourself with lots of soap," suggests IAMAT's Assunta Uffer-Marcolongo.
5. Stay safe on roads
"The No. 1 cause of death among travellers is motor vehicle accidents," warns Keystone. He recommends staying off motorcycles and mopeds entirely, and avoiding travel on rural roads after dark.
"It doesn't matter who your driver is," says Keystone. "You can have an excellent driver, but it's the guy coming the other way who's going to knock you off [the road]."
Assunta Uffer-Marcolongo of IAMAT suggests that travellers who want to leave the resort ask hotel staff to provide them with a recommended driver.
6. Practice safe sex
Between sunny days and sandy beaches — not to mention the open bar — it's always possible that a resort vacation can turn romantic, and that carries its own set of risks.
"Fifty per cent of travellers who have sex with a new partner did not expect to have sex, meaning they're not prepared," says Keystone. He recommends all travellers bring condoms, even if they don't anticipate sex during their vacation.
7. Bring basic medical supplies
You don't need to bring a surgical kit with you to Montego Bay, but a few well-chosen supplies couldn't hurt. Keystone recommends a short list of basics:
- Medications for diarrhea and constipation.
- Bandages and a topical antibiotic.
- Pain medication.
- Something to treat sunburn.
8. Know your options for local doctors
If you do get sick at a resort, you might end up going to the in-house medical clinic. The doctors there might not necessarily be top-grade, warns Uffer-Marcolongo. "In small resorts, it might be the cousin of the owner."
If you need medical care outside the resort, IAMAT offers its members a list of recommended doctors in various countries. In an emergency, Uffer-Marcolongo recommends going to hospitals in big cities, especially university teaching hospitals, if possible.
9. Look for red flags in online reviews
It's not hard to find online reviews of popular resorts, and those reviews can sometimes offer insight into recurring health problems at a particular location.
"One or two bad reviews, I ignore," says Keystone. But he recommends keeping an eye out for a pattern of reviews complaining about the same issue.
10. Get travel insurance, understand it
"I'm all for travel insurance, but read the details," Uffer-Marcolongo advises. Elderly travellers can be ineligible for insurance, as can people with a wide variety of pre-existing medical conditions. IAMAT offers a guide to choosing the best insurance for your trip: