Whatever your age or destination, considering health issues before you leave is an essential part of planning for an overseas visit.
This page provides information to help you prepare for some of the health risks you may face overseas. You should read this page in conjunction with advice for all travellers and the travel advice for your destinations.
Accidents and unexpected illness can happen to anyone, and medical costs overseas can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. Overseas medical costs are not covered by Medicare. The Australian Government won't pay for your medical treatment overseas or medical evacuation to Australia or a third country. Travellers without travel insurance are personally liable for covering any medical and associated costs they incur.
Australia has reciprocal health care agreements with a number of countries. Reciprocal health care agreements provide health care in some circumstances, but will not cover all health care needs. They do not replace the need for travel insurance. Obtaining appropriate travel insurance before you go overseas will help you and your family avoid a financial burden if things go wrong.
For information about choosing an appropriate travel insurance policy, including for travellers with pre-existing medical conditions, see our travel insurance page.
Insurance for cruise passengers
Cruise passengers are strongly encouraged to take out travel insurance appropriate to their circumstances.
Medicare benefits are only payable to cruise passengers travelling between two Australian ports, with no stops outside Australia, and if services are provided by an accredited Medicare provider. Before departure, contact your cruise operator to find out whether an Medicare-accredited doctor will be available. Some passengers have been charged large fees for medical services while travelling between Australian ports because a Medicare-accredited doctor has not been available.
Medicare benefits are not payable for journeys between an Australian port and a foreign port or between two foreign ports.
Health checks and vaccinations
It is common for travellers to become ill while overseas. Sometimes travel illnesses can be life-threatening. The risk of becoming ill can be reduced by proper preparation. Travel health planning should ideally start at least six weeks before departure, but it is never too late to seek good advice.
- If you have any pre-existing or chronic health problems, you should have a check-up with your GP before you travel. Your GP will help ensure your conditions are stable and develop a plan for managing your conditions while travelling. You should also obtain a letter from your doctor with the details of any prescription medication you will be carrying with you.
- Some medical conditions increase the risk of getting a blood clot during a flight. Talk with your doctor about whether you need to take extra precautions.
- A doctor can provide expert advice about health risks at your destination, including vaccines you might need and any other medication you need to take. A doctor can also advise on other ways of preventing specific diseases while travelling as vaccines only provide protection against some diseases.
- If you plan to travel to locations or undertake activities at high altitude (above 2,500 metres) you should get specific advice for your situation. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, even the physically fit.
- Travel health clinics can also provide specialised travel medical kits that contain prescription medications for treating simple travel illness.
General recommendations about vaccinations
Vaccinations are a safe and important part of looking after your health. Vaccines can be general, or specific to a destination or activity. Some vaccines are cheap, others very expensive - so discussing priorities with a travel health specialist is advised.
Some countries require proof of vaccination against specific diseases as a condition of entry. You'll need to check the travel advice for your destination, or the embassy or consulate of the countries you intend to visit or transit. If you are not vaccinated, you may be refused entry or required to have the vaccination at the border.
- Vaccines against polio, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella are provided as part of Australia's, childhood vaccination program but a booster may be required depending on your age. The seasonal influenza vaccine is funded by the government for those at high risk of developing complications from influenza.
- Travellers to some countries should be up to date with hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines, including any country where bottled water is recommended.
- Some vaccines require more than one dose, so it is important to start the course well in advance of travel. These include hepatitis B and rabies. Hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for frequent, high risk or long-term travellers. If travelling where rabies exists and animal exposure is possible, consider pre-exposure rabies vaccine.
- Other vaccines may be destination specific. Proof of yellow fever vaccine is required for entry to some parts of Africa, South and Central America and the Caribbean. See our country-specific travel advice for details. Japanese encephalitis vaccine is used for high-risk or long-term travel in Asia, and a meningitis vaccine may be recommended for certain destinations in Africa or elsewhere.
Where to get travel medicine services and information
All doctors will be able to provide advice about vaccinations and general health issues in preparation for overseas travel. Some General Practioners have a particular interest in travel medicine and will be able to provided more specialised advice. There are also a number of Travel medicine clinics which specialise in vaccinations and preparations for travel, these include:
For more information visit:
Staying healthy overseas
Before you go
- Pack a small medical kit, including items such as headache tablets, antacids, antiseptic, hand sanitiser, band-aids, disposable gloves, SPF 30+ sunscreen and an appropriate insect repellent.
- If your trip will involve an increase in physical activity, gradually build up your fitness several weeks, or preferably months, before you depart. Get advice from your doctor if necessary.
- Factor the effects of jet lag into your itinerary.
- Find out whether general essentials are readily available at your destination. In some countries supplies of feminine hygiene products, nappies and contraceptives, including condoms, can be unreliable or unavailable. It may be best to stock up before you leave.
- Don't try to save luggage space by combining medications into one container. Keep all medication in the original container and carry the original prescription and a letter from your doctor about the medication to avoid problems with customs officials. See our prescription medicines page for essential advice about carrying medications overseas.
In the air
- Keep a supply of important medication in your hand luggage in case your check-in luggage goes missing.
- If you've been scuba diving, don't travel in an aircraft for at least 24 hours after your final dive.
- To help avoid deep vein thrombosis (DVT) stretch your feet and lower legs while seated, walk around the cabin at regular intervals, and drink plenty of fluids, but limit alcohol and caffeine.
The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) provides information on in-flight health.
On the ground
- If you're currently taking prescription medication, continue to take it as directed by your doctor.
- Always take spare medication when going on excursions.
- use strong insect repellent if there is a risk of mosquito-borne disease, such as malaria or dengue fever
Where local tap water is not safe:
- use only boiled or bottled water to drink and brush your teeth, and always check that the seal is intact.
- avoid uncooked and undercooked food, including salads and fruit that you cannot peel.
Potential health risks overseas
New diseases can appear and spread suddenly. Read and subscribe to the travel advice for your destination before you depart to ensure you have the latest information.
Water-borne, food-borne, parasitic and other infectious diseases (including cholera, hepatitis, tuberculosis, typhoid and rabies) are common around the world, with serious outbreaks occuring from time to time.
Bear in mind that standards of food handling and preparation may be different in some countries from those in Australia. Illness caused by poor food handling is common in some locations, even in expensive hotels.
Beware of swimming in unchlorinated fresh water, such as lakes and streams, as this could expose you to parasitic diseases such as schistosomiasis (bilharziasis).
Mosquito-borne and insect-borne diseases
If you're travelling to parts of Africa, South or Central America or the Caribbean you may be exposed to yellow fever. Yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitos. It is a serious and potentially fatal disease which is preventable by vaccination. We recommend that you check the yellow fever entry requirements for all countries you intend to enter or transit by contacting their embassy or consulate. Some airlines may require passengers to present a valid yellow fever vaccination certificate before being allowed to board flights out of the country.
If you have visited countries where yellow fever is endemic in the days before you return to Australia, you will be asked to present a valid yellow fever vaccination certificate upon entry into Australia. For more information about yellow fever, including Australian re-entry requirements, see the Department of Health website.
There are a number of mosquito-borne diseases that can affect travellers visiting warm climates (including malaria, dengue fever, zika virus, chikungunya and Japanese encephalitis). Also ticks, sandflies and other insects spread other diseases in some countries. Take measures to avoid insect bites, including using an appropriate strong insect repellent and wearing long, loose fitting, light coloured clothing.
Medication to prevent malaria may be recommended for some high-risk destinations. Our country-specific travel advice indicates where malaria is a risk. In addition to taking precautions against mosquito bites, you should also consult a doctor about the need for malaria medication.
HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases
When travelling you should always exercise appropriate precautions when engaging in activities that expose you to bodily fluids such as unprotected sex, tattoos, piercings, injecting drug use, working in a health care facility or delivering first aid. The level of HIV/AIDs infection and other sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea, is very high in many countries.
Victims of violent crime, especially rape, are strongly encouraged to seek immediate medical assistance. There are medications available to help decrease the chance of becoming infected with HIV in these circumstances. For more information on the spread of HIV/AIDS, see the World Health Organization website.
Influenza is a viral infection that affects mainly the nose, throat, airways and, occasionally, lungs. The virus is transmitted easily from person to person when infected people cough or sneeze. Annual epidemics of influenza usually occur during the winter months in temperate regions, but can occur year-round. See the Department of Health Influenza website for more information.
Avian influenza is primarily a disease of birds and rarely causes infections in humans and other mammals. There is no ongoing spread of avian influenza from person to person.
Australians travelling to areas affected by avian influenza can reduce their risk of infection by:
- avoiding situations where they may come into contact with infected birds, including live bird markets
- ensuring all uncooked poultry and eggs are handled hygienically with careful attention to hand washing after handling
- ensuring all poultry and eggs are cooked thoroughly before eating (proper cooking destroys the virus in poultry and eggs)
See a doctor promptly if you become sick with fever, coughing, or difficulty breathing during or after travel to a country affected by avian influenza.
H1N1 (Swine Flu)
Swine influenza viruses are common among pig populations globally and do not usually infect humans. Most human infections with swine influenza viruses are mild, with the virus not spreading further to other people. The (H1N1) 2009 virus that caused the global pandemic in 2009-2010 was thought to have originated in pigs and is an example of a swine-origin virus that was able to spread among people and cause disease. Since 2010, the H1N1 virus strain has been incorporated in the annual seasonal influenza vaccine around the world.
Rabies is present in many countries worldwide. Rabies is a fatal viral disease that is almost always spread by an animal bite, but can also be contracted through a scratch or when an animal's saliva gets directly into the eyes, nose, mouth, or broken skin. If bitten, scratched or exposed to the saliva of an animal that may carry rabies you should immediately use soap and water to wash the wound thoroughly for at least 10 minutes and seek urgent medical attention. It is usually impossible to tell if an animal is infected with rabies or not, so you should seek advice for all bites or other exposures.
You can minimise the risk of exposure by avoiding contact with wild and domestic animals, such as dogs, monkeys, bats and other mammals. Travellers should not feed or pat monkeys, even in places where tourists may be encouraged to do so. Be aware that monkeys may bite or scratch you without warning to look for food.
Roughly 97% of confirmed human rabies cases worldwide are caused by contact with infected dogs. However, in recent years an increasing number of Australians returning from overseas have required rabies treatment following bites and scratches from monkeys, particularly following travel to Bali and Thailand.
The Rabies vaccine is effective if given shortly after an exposure (bite, or scratch) in combination with Rabies immunoglobulin. The availability of rabies treatment (vaccine and immunoglobulin) may be limited in some locations overseas. You may need to return to Australia or travel to a third country to obtain prompt treatment. If you are planning to stay in a location with high levels of rabies for a prolonged period or to work with animals, you should consult your doctor or travel clinic about obtaining a pre-exposure rabies vaccination. For further information on rabies see the World Health Organization website.
Ebola virus disease
Infection with Ebola virus disease (EVD) is frequently fatal. The symptoms of EVD are severe and can include high fever, muscle pain and weakness, headache and sore throat, followed by vomiting, diarrhoea and in some cases, internal and external bleeding. There is currently no available vaccine to prevent Ebola although there are efforts to develop one. There is no proven safe and effective treatment for EVD, however prompt and high-quality supportive care can be life-saving.
EVD is spread through direct contact with broken skin or mucous membranes with the body fluids of an infected person, including blood, faeces and sweat. Transmission can also occur through direct contact with the body or bodily fluids of a deceased EVD patient. There is a risk of sexual transmission of Ebola virus from survivors for an unknown period after recovery, and should be considered to continue indefinitely until more is known.
Australians considering travel to a country where EVD is present should maintain strict standards of hygiene and avoid all direct contact with patients with EVD or unknown illnesses, including avoiding unprotected sexual contact with survivors. Avoid contact with any objects that could have been contaminated with the body fluids of someone with EVD. Avoid contact with wild animals and do not eat or handle raw or undercooked animal products, such as blood and meat. Know the symptoms of EVD and see a healthcare provider immediately if you feel unwell, or if you develop any EVD symptoms.
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)
Cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) have been reported in several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Lebanon and the Republic of Korea.
MERS can cause a rapid onset of severe respiratory illness with a fatality rate of around 30%. There is no vaccine. Symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Some patients have reported a variety of other symptoms, including muscle pain, diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea. Some patients have mild symptoms or no symptoms. Severe disease occurs more frequently in people with underlying conditions that may make them more susceptible to infection (including diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension, asthma and lung diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disease).
Camels are suspected to be the source of infection for sporadic cases, but the exact routes of direct or indirect exposure remain unknown. Person-to-person spread can occur, particularly in healthcare settings where outbreaks of the disease have been reported.
The WHO advises that people at potentially higher risk of severe illness should take appropriate precautions when visiting farms, barn areas or market environments where camels are present in MERS-affected countries. This might include avoiding contact with camels, good hand hygiene, and avoiding drinking raw milk or eating food that may be contaminated with animal secretions or products unless they are properly washed, peeled or cooked.
Travellers should practice good hygiene measures, such as regular hand washing before and after touching animals, avoiding contact with sick animals, and following food hygiene practices in MERS-affected countries.
Seek immediate medical attention if you feel unwell with symptoms similar to MERS infection while travelling or on your return to Australia. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider that you have travelled to a region where MERS is known to occur. Avoid close contact with people who are ill with these symptoms.
In some countries where regulation of sales of alcoholic drinks is weaker than in Australia, alcoholic drinks can be mixed with harmful substances, particularly methanol, which can cause serious illness, blindness, brain injury or death. Symptoms of methanol poisoning can include fatigue, headaches and nausea, similar to the effects as excessive drinking but with pronounced vision problems that may include blurred vision, flashes of light, tunnel vision, changes in colour perception, dilated pupils, difficulty looking at bright lights, or blindness. Getting urgent medical attention could avoid permanent disability or death. If you suspect that you or a companion may have been poisoned, you need to act quickly.
All suspected cases of methanol poisoning should be reported to local police.
There is a risk of poisoning from naturally occurring seafood toxins from eating fish or shellfish. This risk exists in Australia and overseas. The various toxins are:
- ciguatera poisoning, caused by eating warm water ocean finfish that carry ciguatera toxin
- scrombroid, or histamine fish poisoning, has similar symptoms to ciguatera poisoning and can also result from the consumption of fish
- Shellfish can also carry naturally occurring seafood toxins that can cause poisoning in humans.
For more information, including on symptoms and treatment, see Queensland Health's fact sheet [PDF].
Australians with mental health concerns should carefully consider the possible impact of overseas travel on their wellbeing. The experience of different environments, unfamiliar customs, language barriers, social isolation, and general uncertainty may increase stress and anxiety. Increased stress can exacerbate existing mental health conditions or trigger unfamiliar mental health concerns. When this occurs overseas it can be particularly traumatic not only for the person suffering mental health issues, but for their family and friends.
Try to ensure your condition is stable before you travel and that you have discussed your proposed travel with your health care provider. It is useful to discuss strategies for managing your condition while overseas. You should continue to take any prescribed medication.
The Australian Government will do what it can to help families and friends who have a loved one suffering mental health concerns overseas, however, there are legal and practical limits to what can be done and you should have realistic expectations about this. When Australians travel abroad, they leave behind Australia's support systems, emergency service capabilities and medical facilities. In addition, mental health facilities, attitudes and treatment approaches in foreign countries can be very different to those in Australia. See our mental health page for more information.
Medical tourism refers to travelling to another country for medical or dental treatment. Many people who undertake medical tourism do so because treatment is much cheaper in another country. The most common procedures that people undergo on medical tourism trips include cosmetic surgery, dentistry, and heart surgery. In recent years, orthopedic, IVF and stem-cell therapy are all being offered by overseas providers. Some of these services are not approved in Australia.
If you plan to travel overseas for medical or dental treatment, including a cosmetic procedure, keep in mind that the quality of care you receive may not be of the same standard you would expect in Australia. Health standards in some countries, including training of doctors and nurses, infection rates and rates of complications are not as good as in Australia. The emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in many overseas hospitals is of concern, as infections may not be treatable. Australians intending to have operations or procedures overseas should be aware that while the planned procedure may be straightforward, complications can arise. The cost of repair or further treatment may be high, or you may return home with a new or worse problem.
Remember that you are financially responsible for costs incurred during and after treatment. These costs will not covered by Medicare. Standard travel insurance is unlikely to meet the costs of planned medical treatment abroad. Be honest with your insurance company about your plans and declare any pre-existing medical conditions.
If you are travelling for the purpose of receiving medical treatment you still need to undertake the standard health preparations for an overseas visit, including vaccinations.