Essential Travel Vaccinations Guide: What Shots to Get & Why

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You’ve decided to book a trip to travel abroad, it’s a dream trip and you’re so excited you momentarily forget about the preparation involved in a trip of this kind. The last thing you want to think about is travel vaccinations.

When you finally come back to earth, you realize there is much more preparation then you initially thought and you may find yourself instantly overwhelmed.

Don’t panic! We are here to help with our vaccinations for travel guide. Whether you are going for a 2-week vacation, volunteer work or a 4-safari in Africa, we are going to go through all the must-haves and some of the other things you should be aware of during your travels.

Disclaimer: We are not doctors, nor do we pretend to be. We are educated, well-traveled people that understand the importance of medical needs when traveling to countries around the World. This information should not be replaced by information that is given by your practicing travel doctor and you should consult with them prior to taking any medication or traveling abroad. This guide is simply to provide information and help you become an educated traveler.


Essential Travel Vaccinations Guide


Preparing for a trip abroad can be an exciting time. However, your medical health is something you should not overlook and we are here to help you wade through some of the information based on our own travel experiences.

Throughout this guide, you’ll find an overview of both vaccinations and medications that are recommended for various global travels. We’ve sprinkled in a lot of our own experience too.


Routine Vaccinations


David Stock hiking at Puerto Los Gatos Mexico

While this article may be about travel vaccinations, there are vaccinations that you will get as part of routine health and then ones that you need for travel. Depending on your destination, of course.

These routine vaccinations are likely given to your when you are a kid. You may have even received boosters as a young adult.

When planning any travel abroad, it is important to check your vaccination records to confirm if you have completed the series for these routine vaccinations.

When we were planning our long term travels, it came to our attention that neither of us had finished the hepatitis series. In order for the vaccine to be effective, we needed to complete these shots.

These routine vaccinations act as the base, if you will, in your medical protection and you really shouldn’t consider traveling abroad unless they are complete or up to date.

THE MOST COMMON ROUTINE VACCINATIONS:

  • TDaP (Tetanus, Diptheria, Purtusiss)
  • Measles, Mumps, Rubella
  • Polio
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Flu Shot

TDap Vaccine

Tetanus is a bacteria that is found in the soil and animal excrement. This means that it is everywhere and you should ensure your vaccinated from it.

If tetanus bacteria enters a wound, it creates a deadly toxin called tetanospasmin.

The symptoms are excruciating and can include nerve spasms and contractions that spread from the face to the arms and legs, and can affect the ability to breathe.

If you are not vaccinated and happen to contract tetanus, while traveling or at home, know that it can be fatal if untreated.

These days tetanus vaccines are often mixed with vaccines for Diptheria & Pertussis, two more bacterial diseases. The only downside to this is that you’ll need to booster it every 5 years, vs 10 years for standalone tetanus.

You should make sure you are current on your Tetanus/Diptheria/Pertussis vaccination prior to traveling. This is one of those understated, yet necessary, travel vaccinations.

The Tdap is cheap and an easy one to have updated when you go in for other vaccinations for your trip.

  • DOSAGE: 1 injection
  • PROTECTION: 10 years if given by itself. 5 years if given as a combo Tetanus/Diptheria/Pertussis vaccine
  • WHEN TO GET IT: At least 1 month prior to travel in case of a reaction, although you’ll likely get it much further out than that at the same time as other vaccines that are needed
  • POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: Swelling and redness at the injection site, fever, loss of appetite, headache and dizziness.
  • RECOMMENDED FOR: All Countries

Measles, Mumps, Rubella Vaccine

The MMR vaccine is usually given to infants. So you are most likely already good on that vaccination, but be sure to check your records before you travel.


Polio Vaccine

Polio is a virus that affects the nervous system. It is spread through person-to-person contact. It is also spread through contaminated food or water that has been handled by an infected person.

It has an incubation period of 7-14 days where most cases will exhibit no symptoms.

Some cases will experience mild flu-like symptoms, paralysis, bladder dysfunction, impaired swallowing, breathing, and speech, which could be fatal.

  • DOSAGE: 1 injection
  • PROTECTION: Lifetime. Most people will already have gotten the Polio vaccine as children but anyone who hasn’t completed the 4 shot series should get the remaining shots before traveling to a Polio area on their travels.
  • WHEN TO GET IT: Even if you completed the 4 shot series as a child, you will be advised to receive a booster injection if you plan to travel abroad. As a single injection, you’ll want to get it at least 4 weeks prior to travel or with other injections at an earlier date.
  • POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: Injection site reactions (redness, swelling, tenderness, pain, or a lump), fever, irritability, tiredness, drowsiness, joint pain, body aches, or vomiting.
  • RECOMMENDED FOR: Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East

Hepatitis A Vaccine

Hepatitis A is contracted through contaminated water or food. It is commonly contracted through shellfish or person-to-person contact.

90% of people will not show symptoms but the ones that do will include fever, upset stomach, rash, vomiting, and diarrhea.

If you are coming from a Western country, you are more at risk due to the sanitary conditions and your body will have no time to develop immunization from the pre-exposure to Hepatitis A.

  • DOSAGE: 2 injections given 30 days apart
  • PROTECTION: Hepatitis A given as a 2-dose vaccination provides protection for 1 year. However, if you are given an additional booster 6-12 months later, you will be protected for 20 years.
  • WHEN TO GET IT: It is best to have the first shot 6 months before your departure date so you can complete the full course before you travel. If this is not possible, then you can have the first 2 shots before you leave, and have the booster shot when you return home.
  • POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: Swelling and redness at the injection site, fever, loss of appetite, headache and dizziness.
  • RECOMMENDED FOR: All Countries

Hepatitis B Vaccine

Hepatitis B is a serious disease caused by a virus that attacks the liver. It is spread through bodily fluids, contaminated medical equipment, and sexual contact.

  • DOSAGE: 3 injections given over 6 months
  • PROTECTION: Lifetime. Most people will get this vaccination as infants but if you haven’t gotten it, you shouldn’t travel without it.
  • WHEN TO GET IT: It is best to have the first shot more than 6 months before your departure date so you can complete the full course before you travel.
  • POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: Swelling and redness at the injection site, fever, loss of appetite, headache and dizziness.
  • RECOMMENDED FOR: All Countries

Recommended Travel Vaccinations


David Stock in the Amazon Rainforest, Peru
David in the Amazon Rainforest in Peru

What travel vaccinations you need will depend on where you are planning to travel.

Not all places are created equal on the disease front, so a visit to your neighborhood infectious disease clinic should be on your list of pre-trip things to do.

Apart from the routine list above, you may find that you are in need of additional vaccinations to keep yourself protected on your trip.

THE MOST COMMON TRAVEL VACCINATIONS:

  • Typhoid fever
  • Yellow Fever
  • Malaria (medication not vaccine)
  • Rabies
  • Meningitis
  • Japanese Encephalitis
  • Cholera

Typhoid

Typhoid fever is a serious disease caused by Salmonella typhi and is spread through the ingestion of contaminated food and water. Contaminants include feces and urine of infected people.

Symptoms of typhoid include lasting high fevers, weakness, stomach pains, headache, and loss of appetite. These symptoms will develop 1-3 weeks after exposure and may be anywhere from mild to severe.

This is one of those travel vaccinations that I wouldn’t leave home without getting. That said, with all of the traveling we do, we also keep up on the renewal of it, too.

  • DOSAGE: 1 injection or pills
  • PROTECTION: The live oral vaccine is 4 pills taken over 7 days and is good for 5 years. The killed injection is good for 3 years. Neither of these will protect you 100% so it is important to be vigilant of your food and water sources.
  • WHEN TO GET IT: At least 4 weeks prior to travel
  • POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: Mild soreness and redness may occur at the injection site. With the oral vaccine, the most common side effects are nausea diarrhea, fever, and headache. Serious reactions are very rare in both vaccines.
  • RECOMMENDED FOR: South America, Central America, Asia, Africa, Pacific Islands

Yellow Fever

Yellow Fever is a mosquito-borne illness that is prevalent in some areas of Africa and South America. It causes high fever, jaundice, and renal failure. In someone that has not been vaccinated, it can be fatal.

Some countries in Africa will not permit you to enter without providing proof of vaccination for Yellow Fever.

There is no cure for it, so getting the vaccination is your best move to protect yourself from getting it.

Once you have it, your travel doctor will issue you an International Certificate of Prophylaxis that includes all the information pertaining to your vaccine. Keep this with your passport.

  • DOSAGE: 1 injection
  • PROTECTION: Lifetime
  • WHEN TO GET IT: Yellow Fever must be given 10 days or more before leaving. It is a live vaccine, so it has to be given on the same day as other live vaccines or 3 weeks apart.
  • POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: This vaccine is known for side effects including swelling and redness at the injection site and fever. David experienced the redness and swelling at the injection site, while I experienced a high fever for several days after receiving the vaccine.
  • RECOMMENDED FOR: South America & Africa (see affected countries here)

Malaria

One of the sicknesses people hear about the most when it comes to vaccinations for travel is the mosquito-borne Malaria. Luckily, taking a medication prescribed by your travel physician can prevent this disease.

There are a number of different alternatives to prevent Malaria depending on the country and then region you plan to visit.

Some Malaria medications will not work at all due to strain immunity so it is very important that you consult with a travel physician about the appropriate medication for your Africa Trip.

The two most popular are listed below, although there are other options available and the side effects vary widely.

ATOVAQUONE (MALARONE)

Malarone has taken the lead as the most favorable Malaria medication worldwide as it has the fewest side effects.

Taken daily, it works to prevent the spread of Malaria through your body should you be bitten by a Malaria infected mosquito. It can also be used to treat a Malaria infection.

It is the most expensive option you can take but the loading time of 2 days before reaching the infected area and withdrawal time of only 7 days sometimes makes the price hike worth it.

DOXYCYCLINE

This is a broad-spectrum antibiotic that is often used for Malaria prevention. It is the cheapest option you can find at your pharmacy but the withdrawal time is 4 weeks after leaving the infected area.

It also has some side effects that can be challenging while traveling in Africa, such as sensitivity to light and it is known to cause disruptions in the effectiveness of oral contraception.

No matter what option you choose as Malaria prophylaxis for your travels in Africa be sure to follow the safe practice of limiting mosquito bites as much as you can.

Wear long sleeves and pants, limit exposure during dawn to dusk and use 50% plus DEET mosquito repellent.


Rabies

Rabies is a disease that can be contracted through contact with infected animals. While it is not prevalent in Western countries, it is found in many third world countries.

Transmission occurs through an animal’s saliva, either a bite or lick.

You will see many stray dogs and cats in your travels and no matter how sweet they look, resist the urge to pet them. While they may appear perfectly fine, that doesn’t mean they are not carrying the virus.

Having the vaccination does not mean you will not contract rabies, it just means that if you are bitten by an animal with rabies you have a better chance of surviving.

Don’t forget, monkeys carry rabies and most exhibit no symptoms, do not try to pet or feed monkeys!

  • DOSAGE: 3 injections that have to be given on a strict schedule to be effective. It is given on days 0, 7, 21-28.
  • PROTECTION: Boosters should be given every 2-3 years.
  • WHEN TO GET IT: At least 4 weeks before you travel
  • POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: Redness and swelling at the injection site.
  • RECOMMENDED FOR: Asia, South America, Middle East, Africa

Meningitis

Meningitis (formally known as Meningococcal disease) is a life-threatening illness. It is caused by a bacterium that infects the blood, brain, and spine.

The disease is spread person-to-person and is easily spread in crowd settings where you can catch it from a person that looks healthy.

Even with proper treatment, 15% of people that contract this disease die. Meningitis can cause shock, coma, and death within hours of the first symptoms.

Vaccination is the best way to prevent meningitis so it doesn’t hurt to add it to the list.

  • DOSAGE: 2 injections that have to be given 30 days apart effective.
  • PROTECTION: This provides protection for 1 year, however, if you are given an additional booster 6-12 months later, you will be protected for 20 years.
  • WHEN TO GET IT: It is best to have the first shot 6 months before your departure date so you can complete the full course before you travel. If this is not possible, then you can have the first 2 shots before you leave, and have the booster shot while you are on the road.
  • POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: Swelling and redness at the injection site, fever, loss of appetite, headache and dizziness.
  • RECOMMENDED FOR: Africa & the Middle East

Japanese Encephalitis

Another mosquito-borne illness that is contracted through being bitten by an infected mosquito, Japanese Encephalitis is most common in rural farming areas of Asia.

While the risk is generally low for most travelers to Asia, if you find yourself wanting to spend a lot of time in rural areas during monsoon season you should have this vaccine.

The alternative is possibly contracting it during your travels. If this happens it could lead to inflammation of the brain and other symptoms that can be fatal.

  • DOSAGE: 2 injections that have to be given 30 days apart effective.
  • PROTECTION: This provides protection for 1 to 2 years.
  • WHEN TO GET IT: At least 4 weeks before you travel
  • POSSIBLE SIDE EFFECTS: Swelling and redness at the injection site, fever, loss of appetite, headache and dizziness.
  • RECOMMENDED FOR: Asia & Southeast Asia

Other Travel Medical Risks to Think About


Lina & David Stock hiking with mosquito nets

Not all diseases can be prevented with vaccination and your travels will certainly expose you to some of them. Be sure you are aware of the disease risks in the areas that you travel.

You can find information about all these risks from your travel doctor and the Center for Disease Controls travel website for the countries you are traveling through.

Some other common medical risks you should have in mind for your travels:

  • Stomach Bugs
  • Dehydration
  • Mosquito Exposure
  • Dengue Fever
  • Zika Virus
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Bilharzia

Stomach Bugs

I think the biggest thing here is to watch what you eat. Eating local, fresh foods is fine as long as you wash them right, cook them at high temperatures and/or peel them.

The biggest concern is going to be the accidental ingestion of the water. It not only causes stomach upset but can be a host to another serious disease like Hepatitis A and Typhoid.

The biggest symptom is diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. If you have an onset of these symptoms, be sure to rest immediately and keep up your fluids.

If you can’t get your fever to break do not hesitate to visit a clinic for an evaluation and treatment.


Dehydration

Dehydration can happen very fast while traveling in Africa. You can be easily distracted by the things around you and not thinking about how much water you drink.

The next thing you know you are dehydrated with a headache and stomach problems. I can’t stress enough how important it is that you are consuming a minimum of 2 liters of water daily while traveling in Africa.

Drinking water seems simple but it will go a long way in keeping you healthy during your trip.

Prevention: Drink 2 liters of water daily at a minimum. If you find yourself having difficulty drinking water or feeling a little dehydrated, stop into a pharmacy and pick up a box of rehydration sachets. Mix it up as directed and drink it. It will replenish your electrolytes and entice you to consume more water.


Mosquito Exposure

Mosquito

One of the biggest risks that you will have while traveling is mosquito exposure. You’ll notice that plenty of the diseases mentioned in this article are mosquito-borne illnesses.

It’s worth mentioning that this is serious and you should be vigilant in trying to avoid mosquito bites when you travel. Especially in jungles, rainforests and rural areas.

If you are bitten by a mosquito and begin to feel ill, see a doctor immediately, even if you are vaccinated against the main diseases. It could be Dengue or Malaria.

The best way to avoid mosquito bites is to have a process that you stick to daily. This will ensure that you avoid unwanted bites, and diseases.

These are our best tips for avoiding mosquito bites while traveling:

  • Apply DEET insect repellents to exposed skins and re-apply frequently – always apply over sunscreen
  • Treat your clothing with permethrin before traveling to at-risk areas.
  • Be sure to cover your arms and legs with long loose-fitting clothing.
  • To kill any mosquitoes that might get in your room by using the air conditioning, keeping windows closed, burning mosquito coils and spraying insect repellent.
  • If you do not have air conditioning in your room, turn on the fan and use a mosquito net to ensure they do not land on you while you sleep.

Dengue Fever

Aside from Yellow Fever & Malaria, another mosquito-borne illness to watch out for is Dengue Fever and in my opinion, this one is much worse than Malaria.

There is no medication or vaccination you can take that will prevent you from getting Dengue Fever.

The best practice in preventing infection is to keep yourself covered during prime mosquito time, dawn to dusk, and use the highest amount of DEET repellent you can stand.

Make it at least 50% DEET. If you find yourself starting to exhibit the symptoms of Dengue Fever, seek medical attention immediately.

Symptoms of Dengue Fever usually begin four to six days after infection and last for up to 10 days and may include sudden high fever, severe headaches, pain behind the eyes, severe joint & muscle pain, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and skin rashes.


Zika Virus

If you have travel plans that involve visiting any of the countries in Central or South America, then Zika Virus has likely crossed your mind. With good reason.

Another mosquito-borne illness, Zika is transmitted to humans by infected mosquitos.

While many people will have mild to no symptoms, Zika is damage causing to unborn babies through a birth defect of the brain called microcephaly.

As with Dengue Fever, to avoid Zika Virus, you’ll want to practice almost religious mosquito preventative measures to avoid contraction.


HIV/AIDS

While the chances are slim that you will contract HIV during your travels, if you find yourself in Africa you need to remember that many African countries have staggering statistics on infected people.

Some countries along popular overland routes see numbers like 1 in 5 people having HIV.

If you are planning to have any sexual encounters during your travels in any country, it is imperative that you practice the safest contact you can and use protection.


Bilharzia

White Water Rafting Nile River Uganda Africa
White water rafting on the Nile River in Uganda

If you are visiting any of the countries in Africa and plan on getting in the water, then Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) is something you need to know about. Bilharzia is a parasitic disease caused by blood flukes and is transmitted by snails.

It is the third most devastating tropical disease in the World. The only way to prevent it is to not enter any bodies of water; this includes the Zambezi River, devils pools at Victoria Falls, Lake Malawi, Lake Victoria, Lake Tana, and the Nile River.

This may sound daunting but you will miss out on far too much by doing this. You will want to go whitewater rafting, swimming, and scuba diving during your adventures in Africa.

Treatment for Bilharzia can be picked up at a local pharmacy in Africa for a small price and you can take the treatment after you return home to clear any potential infections from your body.

Alternatively, just go into your doctor on your return home for a Bilharzia test.


Where to Get Vaccinations for Travel


travel vaccinations

Regular Doctor or Health Centers

Once you have your trip booked a good place to get travel vaccinations is with your primary care physician.

It is possible they won’t have access to some of the vaccinations that are needed, but they will be able to refer you to a place that does.

It’s also wise to keep an eye out for vaccination clinics by the state, county or town that you live in, as they often offer the routine vaccinations for a low cost.

Walgreens is also a great place to get travel vaccines prior to your travels too.

Infectious Disease/Travel Clinic

Aside from regular clinics, county health departments and pharmacies, you could look for an infectious disease clinic in your area.

We are lucky to have a really good one in our area and this the route that we take for all of our travel vaccinations.

The doctors in these clinics will be well versed and up to date on all infectious disease around the world.

When you make your appointment, be sure to tell them where you are headed so they can be prepared for your visit.

Once you arrive, your doctor will consult with you about what is needed, required and recommended for the country that you are visiting and then administer accordingly.

Foreign Clinic

Lastly, many people choose to get vaccinations and medications needed for travel while abroad to save money.

This can be a viable option if you have some time to visit a well-established hospital in the country that you are visiting.

Just remember that many of the vaccines require more than one shot and some need up to 4 weeks between administration.


Is All of This Really Necessary and Worth the Trouble?


Divergent Travelers - Adventure Travel
Chasing waterfalls in Fiji

After writing all of this and spending the past 19 years traveling around the World, with 3 years of nonstop long term travel to 7 continenets, the short answer is YES.

While I understand each person must take a look at the risks, costs, and necessity, I can say without a doubt that it is better to be safe than sorry.

Can you imagine contracting any of these diseases or infections during your travels? The answer to that question should tell you the answer. Did I miss anything?


Travel Vaccination Resources


If you want to learn more about travel vaccinations and infectious disease in relation to world travel, here are some great resources:

Disclaimer: We are not doctors, nor do we pretend to be. We are educated, well-traveled people that understand the importance of medical needs when traveling to countries around the World. This information should not be replaced by information that is given by your practicing travel doctor and you should consult with them prior to taking any medication or traveling abroad. This guide is simply to provide information and help you become an educated traveler.

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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA



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11 thoughts on “Essential Travel Vaccinations Guide: What Shots to Get & Why”

  1. Wow I did not now about some of these. Than you so much for this guide. I will be in East Africa for the entire month of May and am prone to mosquito bites. I will definitely look for the highest possible DEET concentration bug spray. Do you recommend getting it ahead of time or is it better to find it while already there?

    Reply
    • I would definitely recommend bringing a bottle with you for the start of your trip. Depending on where you go, you will be able to find some there but it’s not always possible. Best to be prepared, especially if you are prone to bites! And definitely take Malaria prophylactic.

      Reply
  2. Thank you for sharing such an inspiring and very informative post regarding traveling to Africa! Now every one will have to take the vaccines really seriously and be prepared so all travelers can enjoy their time there!
    Keep up the amazing work!

    Reply
  3. Very useful info, thanks for sharing! Although I hate the vaccines, I always want to stay on the safe side. We also experienced some nasty side effects from the yellow fever vaccination, like high fever for days. Still we’re so happy to have that certificate – it was well needed when we visited the Democratic Republic of Congo last summer!

    Reply
    • Yea, that Yellow Fever was a doozie for me. David just had the injection site irritation, lucky him! The Congo, bummed we missed that but its on our list for our return visit to Africa. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Super helpful post! I had no idea that some vaccines needed to be given so far in advance – I guess I need to start looking into all of these more seriously, considering I’ll be headed to Africa in May!

    Reply
    • Hi Amanda! Yes, it can sneak right up on you if you hadn’t thought of it right away. You still have some time but if you haven’t had some of these series, I would recommend getting into your travel doc asap! Can’t wait to follow your Africa travels!

      Reply
  5. I think vaccination against rabies is a bit pointless, because it doesn’t protect like others, it just increase the time to get medicaments in case of being bitten… but in general, vaccinations are extra important!

    Reply
    • I know a lot of people feel the way that you do about the Rabies vaccine. However, if you are in remote Africa or even SE Asia for that matter, getting to a clinic or hospital that actually carries the rabies vaccine, should you be bitten, is a slim chance. By having the Rabies vaccine prior to traveling in Africa, and say you are bit by a rabid animal, you have time to return to your home country or the closest Western country for treatment before you reach a critical stage. To us, the risk of getting bitten by a rabies infected animal was too high of a risk considering the areas we often visit. Especially after learning that most hospitals in the third world are not equipped with rabies treatment. Just something to think about!!

      Reply
  6. Oh my Gosh, I had no idea that there are so many serious illness in Africa! It’s good that some countries don’t allow you to cross the border without providing a proof of vaccination, though.
    I haven’t been to Africa yet, but I must remember about all important vaccinations before I go there in the future:)

    Reply
    • Yes, there are many diseases we can encounter in our travels, not just Africa. It is very important that you consult with a travel physician before traveling to a new continent. Africa, South America and SouthEast Asia are RAMPANT with diseases we have no immunity to. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should not travel there, it just means we need to be smart about it, read about the risks, consult a travel physician and get the necessary vaccines to ensure we have safer medical travels.

      Reply

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