Let’s Play Doctor! Travel First Aid Care

Aleta Fimbres 13/12/2012

travel first aid tips

Bearing witness to a conversation about politics, sports or investments, most people will freely bow out and admit if they don’t know enough to participate. “Oh, interest rates” they’ll say, “Sorry. Not my thing.”

But bring up medicine, health and diet and suddenly everyone’s Dr. Genius Healer, M.D, Ph.D, D.D.S and many more. This, despite the fact that most real doctors who’ve studied these things for decades admit they don’t know anything for certain. And while they say this mostly to avoid getting sued, sometimes they actually mean it.

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Nowhere is this medical pretension more evident than among travelers in general, and backpackers in particular. Seems like everyone on holiday knows exactly the proper way to treat a wound, what to take for the common cold and how to beat a bad case of the runs. But more often than not, they acquired their knowledge from either a) the rumour mill or b) a one-time personal experience – twin fountainheads from which all the utter nonsense in the world has sprung. Science was designed to fight this human foible, but three hundred years after its inception, self-indulgent poppycock continues to prove wildly more popular than principled rationality.

We must strive to provide the earnest seeker of truth prescriptions more wholesome than those offered by charlatans, hypocrite hippies, and sometimes, sadly, your own mother. Let’s take a look at the three above-mentioned maladies. And remember: If you’re not a doctor and you’re giving someone else medical advice always say “This is all just my opinion. I could be catastrophically wrong.”

1) How to treat a (superficial) wound
It sure is easy to rent a motorcycle in some countries. Never mind if you’ve never driven one before and are drunk when you rent it, it’s so easy even a six-year old could ride one. In fact, six year olds do ride them in the developing world. Falsely confident, many end up with the infamous “Traveler’s Tattoo” – a gory burn down the side of their arm or leg from sliding down the pavement half-naked. This is normally no big deal if treated right. Unfortunately, it’s often not treated right at all, gets infected and goes green and fuzzy as Kermit the Frog. The main reason this happens is because some 70 percent of the would-be doctors out there tell you to “let the wound breathe.” That might be a nice idea – if you live near the arctic circle. But in the tropics, for example, there’s so much bacteria and bugs that “letting it breathe” is tantamount to “letting it breed.” You’re basically inviting millions of microbes to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Some claim that, in humid climates a wet, closed off wound will fester even worse. Sure, if you bandage it with plastic wrap, use mayonnaise as a disinfectant and never change the dressing. Here’s what to do: disinfect the wound with an antiseptic like iodine or rubbing alcohol, then apply some antibiotic cream, wrap the wound in gauze and fasten with surgical tape. Change the bandage at least three times a day. The end. If it gets worse, go to a real doctor, who will instruct you to take oral antibiotics and also to let someone else drive from now on.

2) How to cure the common cold.
Listen up grasshopper: There is still absolutely no cure for the common cold. No medicinal prevention either. Despite years of hype, the herb Echinacea has been proven by rigorous scientific studies to have no effect at all on colds. Also, do not take antibiotics – they only work on bacterial infections and viruses are an entirely different category of organism. Despite this, many doctors in foreign countries will prescribe you antibiotics anyway. Some prescribe antibiotics for everything, even diabetes and schizophrenia. The best thing you can do for a cold is drink a lot of non-alcoholic liquid and get some rest. Once I drank a whole liter of Ouzo and it seemed to cure mine but that was only because I couldn’t get out of bed for two days.

3) How to get rid of the runs
There are all sorts of interesting theories about this. Consequently most world travelers find it perfectly normal to engage a total stranger in a discourse on the color, texture and odor of their deepest, darkest secrets. Some say you should starve yourself. Some say eat only bananas and rice, and some say gulp down colon-corkers like Imodium. Truth is, no two stomachs are equal and it’s hard to say. I personally find that unless I’m really sick and feverish, both taking Imodium and sticking to rice and bananas is a good combo. Some people say the body knows better – get rid of the internal offender right away. But I say, if my body really knew better it wouldn’t have let me eat that crap in the first place. Stupid body. Best bet: eat and drink as little and as mildly as possible. If not feeling wretched, though, you don’t have to eschew Imodium – after all, if it was dangerous then by now litigious, loose-bowelled Americans would have sued their pants off. So to speak.

This is all just my opinion. I could be catastrophically wrong. So if any of this makes you sicker, please, don’t sue my pants off either.

Oliver Benjamin is a travel writer and an awesomely good dude. You can reach him at oliver@oliverbenjamin.net

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