Complementary Health Approaches for Travelers
During your travels, you may develop a travel-related health problem, which could vary from something serious, like malaria, to just annoying, like mild diarrhea. Some travelers seek out complementary health approaches to ward off or treat health issues. The information about these approaches on consumer websites or in advertisements is often unsupported by research and misleading or false.
This fact sheet explains what studies tell us about herbal products, dietary supplements, and other complementary health approaches for travel-related ailments. A version of this fact sheet for health professionals is available online as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Yellow Book. You can also find travel-related health information at the CDC’s Travelers’ Health webpage.
One of the most serious health concerns facing travelers to many countries is malaria, which you can get when bitten by Anopheles mosquitoes. Malaria causes flu-like symptoms and if left untreated can be deadly. You need prescription medication, protective clothing, and in some cases mosquito netting to protect yourself from malaria. There’s no evidence that the “natural remedies” you see advertised for preventing or treating malaria work.
Artemisia (Artemisia annua or Sweet Wormwood) and Quinine
- Two conventional antimalarial drugs are derived from plants: artemisinin from the plant sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) and quinine from the cinchona tree (Cinchona spp.). They should not be used alone to fight malaria. The medication or medications you would need to prevent or treat malaria depend your travel destination and your overall health, among other factors.
- The World Health Organization has warned against using the artemisia plant by itself in any form (including tea) for treating or preventing malaria. Its use has contributed to the increase in parasites resistant to drugs made from artemisinin.
- Travelers should not use quinine to try to prevent or treat malaria on their own. The quinine used to help treat malaria is a prescription medication and is usually combined with other medications as part of a medical treatment plan. There’s no evidence that quinine prevents malaria.
Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
- Taking vitamin A and zinc supplements may help improve malaria symptoms, but only in malnourished children, studies suggest. There’s no evidence that travelers should be taking vitamin A or zinc to prevent or treat malaria.
- Large or frequent doses of vitamin A may build up in your body, causing severe side effects.
- Taking beta-carotene, a form of vitamin A, has been linked to increased risks of lung cancer and heart disease in some smokers.
- There can be short- and long-term side effects of taking excess zinc, from nausea to lower immune function. Zinc supplements can also interact with several types of medications.
The Zika virus, spread primarily by infected mosquitoes, isn’t dangerous to most people. In fact, many people infected with the Zika virus do not become sick, and those who do often have a mild illness. However, the virus can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and infection during pregnancy can cause certain serious birth defects. Pregnant women should not travel to areas where there is a Zika outbreak. Having unprotected sex with an infected partner may also pose a risk. For more information, see the CDC’s webpage on Zika and pregnancy.
There’s no vaccine or medicine for Zika. Some consumer websites and YouTube videos claim that herbs or other products, such as activated charcoal and diatomaceous earth, will protect against or treat the Zika virus. There’s no evidence that any complementary health products or practices can protect against the virus or treat an infection. Moreover, most dietary supplements haven’t been tested in pregnant women.
One of the more common illnesses facing travelers is diarrhea; 30 to 70 percent of travelers, depending on where and when they travel, get it. You can’t escape travelers’ diarrhea by just avoiding certain foods or untreated water—you may need over-the-counter or prescription medications. Although most complementary health products don’t appear to help with travelers’ diarrhea, probiotics might be useful.
- Probiotics are often recommended for travelers’ diarrhea, and studies suggest they may help treat it. The research is mixed but encouraging on whether probiotics also help to prevent it. The type and dose of probiotics that may help prevent or treat travelers’ diarrhea aren’t clear.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved any health claims for probiotics.
- Safety: Probiotics generally have only minor side effects, if any. However, people with underlying health problems (for example, a weakened immune system) may have serious complications, including infections.
- For more information, see the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) webpage on probiotics.
- You may see goldenseal, an herb, being promoted on the internet as a dietary supplement for a variety of ailments, including travelers’ diarrhea. However, there isn’t research to back up those claims.
- Safety: Studies show that goldenseal may increase the toxicity or alter the effects of many commonly used prescription medicines.
- For more information, see the NCCIH webpage on goldenseal.
- There’s no scientific evidence that activated charcoal, which is made from regular charcoal, helps with travelers’ diarrhea, bloating, stomach cramps, or gas.
- Safety: The side effects of activated charcoal haven’t been well documented but were mild when it was tested by healthy people. Warning: Children should not be given activated charcoal for diarrhea and dehydration. It may absorb nutrients, enzymes, and antibiotics and also hide signs that they are dehydrated.
Grapefruit Seed Extract
- Despite claims that grapefruit seed extract will keep you from getting sick, there’s no research on its effectiveness or safety for travelers’ diarrhea.
Altitude illness can occur when you travel to heights that you aren’t accustomed to, usually above 8,000 feet. Your body needs time to get used to the change in oxygen levels. Symptoms of altitude illness can be mild, such as dizziness, loss of appetite, or nausea, but can also become much more severe. There’s little, if any, evidence that dietary or herbal supplements can help prevent or treat altitude illness (also referred to as mountain sickness).
- Coca tea is often used for altitude illness, but there’s no strong evidence on whether it works or has adverse effects.
- Safety: Coca tea, made from the leaves of the coca plant, will result in a positive drug test for cocaine.
- There’s no evidence supporting claims that garlic helps with altitude illness.
- Safety: Possible side effects of taking garlic include breath and body odor, heartburn, and upset stomach. Short-term use of most commercially available garlic supplements poses only a limited risk of interacting with medications.
- For more information, see the NCCIH webpage on garlic.
- The several small studies looking at whether the herb ginkgo can help prevent altitude illness had conflicting results but were mostly negative. It’s unclear whether the conflicting results occurred because the ginkgo products differed.
- Safety: For many healthy adults, ginkgo appears to be safe when taken in moderate amounts. However, ginkgo may interact with anticoagulants (blood thinners) and other medications. Fresh (raw) or roasted ginkgo seeds can be poisonous.
- For more information, see the NCCIH webpage on ginkgo.
- Vitamin E, in combination with other antioxidants, has been studied for altitude illness and is recommended for it on some consumer websites. But the limited research done suggests that it’s not effective.
- Safety: Vitamin E supplements may increase your risk of having a stroke and interact with medications, including a blood thinner, statins, and niacin.
Children older than age 2 are the most likely to get motion sickness, but anyone can feel nauseous from the motion of traveling by boat, plane, train, or car. Medications may help prevent the nausea but may also have side effects.
Ways To Avoid Motion Sickness
- Sit in the front seat of the car or bus and, if you can, be the driver instead of the passenger.
- In a plane, choose a seat that is over the wing.
- Lie down, shut your eyes, or look at the horizon.
- Stay hydrated, eat small meals, and limit alcohol and caffeinated beverages.
- Distract yourself with music or a pleasant scent.
Complementary health approaches have been studied or advertised for motion sickness but haven’t been shown to work well.
Acupressure and/or Magnets
- Acupressure is sometimes recommended to prevent or treat motion sickness. It involves pressing firmly down on the inside of your wrist or wearing a special wristband that presses that area.
- Studies are mixed on whether acupressure helps with motion sickness.
- Magnets are also sold for motion sickness, but there’s no research that supports their use.
- Safety: Some magnets may interfere with medical devices, such as pacemakers and insulin pumps. Children may swallow or accidentally inhale small magnets, which can be deadly.
- Despite ginger’s reputation for helping with nausea, we don’t have any strong evidence that it helps with motion sickness.
- Safety: The effect of combining ginger supplements and over-the-counter drugs for motion sickness is unknown. In some people, ginger can have mild side effects such as stomach upset, heartburn, diarrhea, and gas.
- For more information, see the NCCIH webpage on ginger.
Other Dietary Supplements or Products for Motion Sickness
- There’s no evidence supporting claims that vitamin B6 or homeopathic products prevent or alleviate motion sickness.
- Like any drug or dietary supplement that contains chemical ingredients, some products labeled as homeopathic may cause side effects or drug interactions. For more information, see the NCCIH webpage on homeopathy.
- Taking large doses of vitamin B6 for a year or longer can have side effects, ranging from skin problems, extreme sensitivity to sunlight, or nausea to severe nerve damage.
Nausea and Vomiting (“Morning Sickness”) in Pregnant Travelers
Feeling nauseous or even vomiting when pregnant isn’t unusual. For guidance on whether and when to seek medical care for this problem, visit this MedlinePlus webpage.
Following are complementary health approaches studied for morning sickness.
- Ginger may help ease pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting. Studies suggest ginger is generally safe during pregnancy, but whether it’s always safe for pregnant women isn’t certain. Talk with your health care provider about using ginger (or any dietary supplements) during pregnancy.
- Ginger can have mild side effects such as stomach pain, heartburn, diarrhea, and gas. People with gallstone disease should avoid ginger. Concerns have been raised that ginger might interact with blood thinners.
- The American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology announced in 2015 that treatment of nausea and vomiting of pregnancy with vitamin B6 or vitamin B6 plus doxylamine (an antihistamine) is safe and effective and should be considered first-line drug treatment. But before taking a vitamin B6 supplement or doxylamine, consult your doctor.
Jet lag occurs when you travel across time zones and your body’s biological clock hasn’t caught up yet. Jet lag can have different symptoms, such as feeling tired and irritable, having an upset stomach, and having difficulty falling asleep or waking up on time.
- Melatonin, a hormone our body produces and also available in dietary supplements, may help with jet lag, studies show. Study participants who were given melatonin before air travel across time zones reported having less jet lag than participants who received a placebo.
- People with epilepsy or who take a blood thinner should not use melatonin without medical supervision.
- Taking melatonin appears to be safe for most people when used short-term; less is known about its long-term safety.
- Melatonin should not be taken early in the day, when it may cause sleepiness and delay your adjustment to local time.
- The amount of melatonin in products and the dosages recommended on labels can vary significantly.
- Side effects from melatonin are uncommon but can include drowsiness, headache, dizziness, or nausea.
- For more information, see the NCCIH webpage on melatonin.
Other Dietary Supplements and Aromatherapy
- There’s very little evidence that aromatherapy, or taking the herbs chamomile or valerian, helps with insomnia. Kava is also advertised for sleep but we don’t have good research on kava for insomnia.
- Aromatherapy and valerian don’t have significant side effects. Chamomile can cause allergic reactions in some people.
- Kava supplements may cause severe liver damage.
Colds and Flu
Your best protection against getting the flu is getting vaccinated. Everyone age 6 months and older should be vaccinated against the flu each year.
Here are some complementary health approaches that have been studied for avoiding colds and decreasing symptoms:
- Taking zinc products by mouth may reduce the length and severity of a cold, studies show.
- Safety: Zinc, particularly in large doses, can have side effects, including nausea and diarrhea. Don’t use any zinc products in your nose; you may lose your sense of smell.
Salt Water Rinses
- Rinsing your nose and sinuses with salt water may help relieve a stuffed-up nose, though the research isn’t definitive.
- Safety: If you do rinse your nose and sinuses, use only sterile or distilled water to avoid getting an infection. For more information, see the FDA’s webpage Is Rinsing Your Sinuses With Neti Pots Safe?
- Taking vitamin C supplements regularly may slightly reduce the length and severity of your colds but not the number of colds you get.
- Safety: Even at high doses, vitamin C supplements appear safe.
Other Approaches for Colds and Flu
- There’s no strong evidence that echinacea, garlic, Chinese herbs, oil of oregano, or eucalyptus essential oil prevent or treat colds or that the homeopathic product Oscillococcinum prevents or treats influenza or influenza-like illness.
- Safety: Some traditional Chinese medicine products may have serious side effects—they’ve been found to be contaminated with undeclared plant or animal material, drugs, heavy metals, or pesticides. For more information, see the NCCIH webpage on traditional Chinese medicine.
- See NCCIH’s tips on natural products for flu and colds.
- The risk of being infected with the virus that causes hepatitis C, a liver disease, when traveling is generally low. However, you can get it from unsterile needles used for acupuncture, a tattoo, or injection drug use; through a medical procedure; or even from sharing personal items contaminated with infected blood, such as razors or a toothbrush.
- No dietary supplement is an effective treatment for hepatitis C. Silymarin, an extract of milk thistle, has been studied for hepatitis C. It has not been found to decrease the levels of the virus in patients’ bodies or improve their liver function.
- Safety: Side effects from silymarin in people with hepatitis C are infrequent and usually include only mild digestive problems.
- For more information, see the NCCIH webpage on hepatitis C.
Vaginal Infections/Urinary Tract Infections
- In studies, probiotics haven’t been shown to help with vaginal or urinary tract infections.
- Safety: Probiotics generally have only minor side effects, if any.
- For more information, see the NCCIH webpage on probiotics.
Avoiding bites isn’t just for your comfort; bugs can spread a number of diseases.
Mosquitoes and Ticks
You can reduce your risk of getting sick by taking these steps to prevent bites:
- Wear protective clothing, sleep in a screened room or an air-conditioned room with the windows closed, and use a bed net if outdoors to avoid getting bitten.
- The CDC recommends using an insect repellent that is at least 20 percent DEET. It helps to ward off mosquitoes, ticks, and other bugs.
- Other repellents such as oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or para-menthane-diol (PMD) protect against mosquitoes but may not be effective against ticks or other bugs.
- “Pure” OLE (an essential oil not formulated as a repellent) hasn’t been well tested and isn’t recommended.
- Insect repellents made from plants, including citronella products, work for less time than products containing DEET.
- Neem oil is used in agricultural insecticides and promoted on some websites for people, but there’s no evidence that it works or is safe for people.
- The risk of picking up bed bugs when you travel is low, but bed bugs have become a problem that travelers need to consider.
- Many products are marketed to repel bed bugs “naturally,” such as essential oils, but we don’t have evidence that they work.
- Follow steps for detecting and avoiding bed bugs, such as inspecting your mattress and keeping your luggage off the floor or bed. It won’t help to spray bug repellent on your clothing or luggage, and it may pose health hazards.
- For more information, see Simple Ways To Avoid Bed Bugs When You Travel and How To Find Bed Bugs.
Too much sun can cause skin cancer, the most common type of cancer in the United States. Being near the equator or at high elevation increases your exposure to the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet radiation. A few common medications, including some antibiotics, may make you more sensitive to the sun. You also need to watch for sun reflecting off of snow, sand, and water.
To Guard Against Sunburns and Possibly Lower Your Risk of Skin Cancer
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen
- Limit how much time you are in the sun
- Avoid peak sun hours (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
- Wear protective clothing.
Many so-called natural sunscreen products are available on the Internet, along with recipes for making your own and advice on consuming dietary supplements or drinking tea to protect against sun damage. Products containing aloe vera and green tea, among other natural ingredients, are promoted as sunscreens. But studies have not proven that any herbal product or dietary supplement, including aloe, beta carotene, selenium, or epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), an extract from green tea, reduces the risk of skin cancer or sun damage.
- Homeopathic products called “nosodes” or “homeopathic immunizations” are promoted as substitutes for conventional immunizations. There’s no evidence that they work nor any scientific reason they should work.
- It’s important that you are properly vaccinated against serious diseases before you travel. To find out what vaccines you may need, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage on vaccines for people traveling outside of the United States.
More To Consider
- Dietary supplements may interact with your medications or pose risks if you have certain medical problems or are going to have surgery.
- Many dietary supplements haven’t been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children.
- Dietary supplements may contain ingredients not listed on the label, prescription drugs not allowed in dietary supplements, and other dangerous chemicals.
- For more recommendations, see Using Dietary Supplements Wisely on the NCCIH website.
- NCCIH has safety tips on supplements and mind and body practices for children and teens.
- Take charge of your health—talk with your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you use. Together, you can make shared, well-informed decisions.
For More Information
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Health Information for International Travel 2018. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2018.
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NCCIH thanks Dr. John Williamson, NCCIH, for his technical expertise and review of this publication.
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