How To Stay Healthy On Your Gap Year

While your gap year travel insurance is likely to cover your health, including any accidents you may have, it's always a good idea to take precautions to keep yourself as healthy as possible.

Like with all travel planning, staying healthy during your gap year is about doing your research before you leave, and making sure you are properly prepared.

Our tips and advice will help reduce your chances of falling ill while you're away.

1. Visit your GP

One of the first things you need to do is book an appointment with your GP.

They will be able to provide you with the most up-to-date information on diseases and other health hazards you may encounter on your trip.

They will also be able to tell you the vaccinations required for visiting your destinations, as well as advise about food and water, sun exposure, and insects.

The Foreign Office, Travellers’ Healthline Advisory Service and the National Travel Health Network and Centre are all useful for finding out information on health hazards in different countries.

2. Get your jabs

Use the NHS fitfortravel website to check the vaccinations you need and book an appointment with the nurse at your local GP surgery.

You will have to pay for this, but your health is not something worth skimping on just to save a few pounds.

Make sure your other regular vaccinations, such as tetanus, polio and meningitis are up-to-date, too. Vaccinations you may need include:

Your jabs are something you need to think about well in advance, as some need to be administered at least 6 weeks before departing for your trip. Some vaccines, such as rabies, require up to 3 appointments, so make sure you're organised!

Unfortunately, there are diseases with no medication currently available, so take steps to avoid contracting them in the first place, such as mosquito sprays and nets.

3. Beware Malaria

Check a reliable and updated source to see if you need malaria tablets for your destination(s).

Malaria is a potentially fatal tropical disease caused by a parasite called Plasmodium, which is passed on through the bite of the Anopheles species of mosquito.

There are 4 different types of malaria parasite, and if you are infected, the symptoms you can experience include fever, shivering, headaches, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting.

So it’s really important you stock up on malaria tablets and start taking them before you leave.

Your GP will be able to tell you what type of malaria medicine you will need, as it varies depending on which part(s) of the world you are visiting.

Lariam, Malarone, Vibramycin, and Aralen are some of the malaria medicines currently prescribed by doctors.

There are big differences in the pricing of malaria pills, so it pays to do some research and compare prices.

Tablets from TravelPharm or Chemist Direct are some of the cheapest around, or you can try other sources such as your local Tesco or Boots pharmacy.  

If you are travelling in an area where malaria is prevalent, try to follow these tips in order to decrease the chance of being infected:

  • Take most precautions at dusk and night time, when mosquitoes are most likely to bite.
  • Make sure the room you are sleeping in is properly screened with gauze over the doors and windows. Check for any holes in the gauze and any overlooked areas in the room that are unscreened. It also helps if your room is air conditioned.
  • Kill any mosquitoes that have entered during the day by spraying the room with an insecticide before settling down for the night.
  • If you are sleeping outdoors, or in an unscreened room, put a mosquito net around your bed treated with a harmless insecticide such as pyrethrum or permethrin (one brand name for this is Elimite). The net should be made of a small mesh with no holes, and should be tucked in under the bottom sheet. This will significantly reduce the risk of being bitten.
  • Be sure to take your own net with you, as you may not be able to get hold of one at your destination.
  • Keep it rolled up and tucked away somewhere unexposed during the day time so no insects can get inside it when you’re not using it.
  • Wear long trousers and long sleeved tops at night to cover yourself as much as possible. Put on some thick socks too, which you should also wear outside in the evening. Light colours tend to be less attractive to mosquitoes.
  • One of the most effective forms of preventing mosquito bites is to use a repellent cream containing diethyl toluamide (DEET). There are other treatments out there made from naturally occurring sources, such as citronella oil, but are generally less effective. Be careful not to exceed the manufacturer's recommendations when applying it though.

4. Food and water risks

When travelling abroad it is very easy to contract a disease through infected water and food. These include E. coli, Dysentery, Giardiasis and hepatitis A, while less common diseases include Cholera, Polio and Typhoid.

Follow these tips to help prevent you falling ill during your travels:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before consuming any food.
  • Drink bottled water at all times, and only from bottles with the seal unbroken. Also use bottled water for brushing your teeth with.
  • If required, purify water with water purification tablets or by boiling it and letting it bubble for a minute or so.
  • Avoid ice unless it is made from treated water – this is a common source of travellers’ diarrhoea.
  • Processed beverages including soda, wine and beer are considered to be safe, as are boiled drinks such as tea and coffee.
  • Only eat fruit that can be peeled and has been peeled yourself (i.e. not handled by others). Wash it well with bottled water to avoid contamination whilst peeling and cutting.
  • Avoid uncooked vegetables, plus any poorly cooked meat and eggs that can lead to bacterial infections and diarrhoea.
  • Do not eat food that is only lukewarm and/or has been exposed to flies, e.g. open buffets, as bacteria could have started to grow in it. Food that is obviously well cooked and piping hot is fine.
  • Do not consume raw or undercooked oysters, crabs and fish, as these can be contaminated with a number of diseases, particularly bacterial infections.
  • Avoid uncooked salads and fruit that may have been washed under the tap.
  • Avoid unpasteurised milk, cheese, ice cream and other dairy products.
  • Do not consume food at street vendors, unless it has been freshly prepared and is served on clean crockery.

5. Watch your sun exposure

Too much time spent in the sun can lead to heat stroke, sunburn, and skin cancer.

Fair skinned people, plus those with a large number of moles, a personal or family history of skin cancer and skin that burns easily are at greater risk, particularly in tropical areas.

To avoid the effects of overexposure to the sun:

  • Invest in a good sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, along with a high protection factor
  • Wear sunglasses that provide UV protection
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Cover your skin as much as you can with loose fitting fabrics you can’t see through, especially between 11 am and 3 pm when the sun is at its strongest
  • Avoid physical activity over long periods of time
  • Don’t drink alcohol
  • Always wear a hat, preferably with a wide brim that protects your head, face and neck
  • Don’t go out in the mid day sun
  • Don’t spend too much time tanning yourself
  • If you become sunburnt, cover up the skin until the redness has disappeared.

6. Eat a healthy diet

While it may be tempting to gorge on greasy, fatty foods while you're away (McDonalds are everywhere these days!), try to keep a balanced diet by browsing the fresh fruit and vegetable markets. This way, you can immerse yourself in the local culture, meet new people, and pay cheaper prices for your food.

In countries such as India, this might not be such a good idea, and you may be wise to stick to street food that has been cooked on a high heat or for a long period of time.

By keeping your diet in mind, you can ensure you're still getting the same nutrients you would back home, and staying as healthy as you can.

Multivitamin packs are a must if you're at all concerned about access to the right foods.

7. Keep drinking

Water that is, not alcohol! Staying hydrated is important to keep the bugs at bay, and make sure you're always raring to go, whatever you're doing!

If you're travelling in countries with poor water, always buy bottled water and/or invest in water purifying tablets.

8. Stay active

Keep yourself healthy by walking as much as you can (this will also save money on bus or taxi fares too!).

If you want some more intensive exercise, why not join a yoga or gym class? Across the world, you will find lots of different disciplines that are great for keeping the body healthy. For example, surfing in Australia, kickboxing in Cambodia and Qigong in China.

9. Avoid Diahorrea

Diahorrea is a concern for a lot of people when travelling to under developed countries. Unfortunately, your stomach will take some time to adjust to all the new food and bacteria going into your body, so be kind to it!.

Apart from the usual advice to avoid tap water, including any vegetables, fruit and salad washed in it, make sure all meat and veg are cooked thoroughly and to wash your hands thoroughly.

Dioralyte (and similar) are great for rebuilding your electrolytes and sugars after you’re ill, so always carry some with you, plus any other useful medication like paracetemol. Take Imodium to ease your bowel movements.

Remember that tummy bugs and food poisoning can leave you extremely dehydrated, so again, make sure you drink lots, and if the symptoms persist, books an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible.

10. Take out insurance

As mentioned earlier, your travel insurance should cover most (if not all) eventualities regarding your health.

Although this is an expensive cost, especially if you enjoy extreme sports, you still need to buy it. Should you have a horrible accident that lands you in hospital, you don't want to be worrying about how you are going to pay for any surgery, or casts for broken bones. You want to be up and about, and back on your feet as soon as possible: insurance will make sure that happens sooner rather than later.

If you get sick while abroad, visit a doctor like you would in the UK. Whatever country you are in, you will find a doctor, so don't be put off thinking you won't get any help. However, you should be prepared to pay, until your insurance company reimburses you.

There are pharmacies everywhere that stock things which would normally require a prescrption in the UK, although this doesn't mean you should take every antibiotic you can find!

You may want to search for nearby doctors, pharmacies and hospitals before you travel abroad so you know where medical help is should you need it.

Gap year health checklist

To make sure you have all the essential items for staying healthy during your trip and arriving home in one piece, we’ve put together a checklist of items that you should consider packing.

  • Malaria tablets
  • Mosquito net
  • Long-sleeved tops and trousers
  • Sunblock (of different factors)
  • Insect repellent
  • Emergency malaria treatment
  • Water purifying tablets
  • Aspirin
  • Flight socks
  • Sterilised needles
  • Plasters
  • Antiseptic and antibacterial wipes
  • Bandages
  • Diarrhoea treatment (e.g. Imodium) and rehydration salts
  • Tablets for travel sickness, antacid, antifungal and antihistamine if necessary
  • Insect bite cream
  • Painkillers/anti-inflammatory tablets
  • Scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Surgical tape and gauze
  • Condoms.

Have a safe trip!

Further information

For more tips and advice on planning your gap year travels, please see: