Traveling with Children: Healthy Planning Considerations From On Call’s Chief Medical Officer

Travel provides enriching experiences and opportunities for the entire family, even for its youngest members—but, for many parents, bringing those youngest members along for the ride can be a bit overwhelming. According to On Call’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Michelle Nathan, it doesn’t have to be that way! In fact, Dr. Nathan says, “You don’t have to put your travel plans on hold until your children are older! Yes, children have developing immune systems and smaller bodies—and in turn, have some unique travel health needs that should be considered when traveling. But, with a little extra planning, children (and their parents!) can have a safe, healthy, and rewarding trip!”

Read on to learn more about Dr. Nathan’s favorite healthy strategies, important considerations, and planning tips for parents traveling with their children.  

Pre-Travel Research
First, start by researching your destination (the CDC’s Travelers’ Health website is a great place to start!). Find out if there are any disease concerns or any other travel health risks in the area that you’ll be visiting. See if there are specific vaccines your children may need before traveling to that area. Find out if there are resources for obtaining medical care and medications at your destination, particularly important if your child has any pre-existing conditions. Learn about any cultural customs that could affect your family’s access to specific types of care (for example, obtaining mental healthcare is more complicated in some countries than others).

(More About) Vaccines
 In general, children face the same health risks as adults, but in some cases, the consequences of a child falling ill can be more serious. In general, vaccine-preventable diseases are more severe in children than adults, so it is highly recommended that children not only get appropriate destination-specific vaccines before traveling, but that they are also up-to-date on all routine childhood vaccinations—such as Hepatitis A, influenza, and meningitis—at least one month before travel. All travel plans and destinations should be discussed with your child’s healthcare provider before travel. Examples of some destination-specific vaccinations include Japanese encephalitis, rabies, and typhoid fever, but this is by no means an inclusive list and varies by destination.

Food and Water Safety
Diarrhea is one of the most common travel-related illnesses for both children and adults. Following safe food and water precautions and frequent hand washing can reduce the risk of food and waterborne illnesses. Food should be thoroughly cooked and eaten while still hot. Raw fruit and vegetables should be peeled or washed in clean water. If water sanitation and safety is a concern at your destination, water should bottled, disinfected, or boiled, and children should avoid drinking water from showers, swimming pools, and other bodies of water. If a child develops diarrhea, they need plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, as young children become dehydrated more quickly than adults. Contrary to popular belief, in cases of diarrhea, do not administer medications that contain bismuth (Pepto Bismol, Kaopectate) as these products have salicylate, the same ingredient that’s in Aspirin. When consumed by children under twelve, they’re at risk for developing Reye’s Syndrome.

Mosquito Bite Prevention
Mosquito-related diseases are endemic in different parts of the world, particularly in warmer climates.  If traveling to these areas, there are steps you can take to protect your child from mosquito bites. Cover exposed skin by dressing children in clothing that covers their arms and legs, and cover strollers and baby carriers in mosquito netting.  Use insect repellent on exposed skin.  DEET is approved for use on children of all ages, whereas products with oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or para-methane diol (PMD) should not be used on children under the age of three. Avoid applying insect repellent to a child’s hands, eyes, mouth, cuts, or irritated skin.  Adults can put insect repellent on their hands, and then apply it to a child’s face.  Clothing and mosquito netting can also be treated with insect repellents or insecticides such as permethrin.  Finally, you can avoid bugs by staying/sleeping in air-conditioned rooms or rooms with window screens.  If bugs can get into the room, you can sleep under mosquito netting that is tucked under the bed/mattress.

Important to note: The most concerning mosquito-bite-associated illness is malaria.  Malaria occurs in Africa, Central and South America, parts of the Caribbean, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the South Pacific.  Malaria is especially dangerous for children as they have a much higher likelihood of developing severe complications from malaria. Children traveling to high-risk areas should be evaluated to determine if they need to be on antimalarial medications; but even with antimalarial medications in the picture, you should still take steps to prevent mosquito bites.

Animal Safety
Children are more likely to play with animals; and since they are typically smaller than adults, they are more likely to be bitten or scratched in the head or neck area. This puts them at higher risk for diseases like rabies. Children should be taught to avoid stray or unfamiliar animals and to tell an adult immediately if they are bitten.  All animal bites should be cleaned immediately and evaluated by a trusted healthcare professional. Families that are traveling to areas with a high risk for rabies exposure should discuss preexposure rabies vaccination with their healthcare provider before travel.

Accident Prevention
Vehicle-related injuries are the leading cause of death in children who travel.  Children should always be properly restrained in moving vehicles, regardless of local traditions. Generally, children less than twelve years old are safest buckled in the rear seat of a car.  Adults and children should wear helmets when riding bicycles, motorcycles, and scooters. Always cross streets carefully holding on to your children and pay attention to local traffic patterns.

Drowning and water-related injuries are also a concern for young travelers. Children may not be familiar with hazards in oceans or rivers, and swimming pools may not have protective fencing. Children, even better swimmers, should be closely supervised by an adult.  Keep in mind that many countries may not have personal flotation devices and life jackets—you may want to consider bringing one from home.

Emergency Planning
Before you leave, find out where your family can get medical care and medications in your destination in the event it becomes necessary. Understand the details of your travel insurance and assistance benefits (and how to access these benefits!) so help is just around the corner if needed. This could include telehealth support for more minor concerns, or even obtaining an in-person evaluation with a trusted, local healthcare provider. In more rare instances—but instances we also need to be prepared for—this can also include a medical evacuation and support for more serious conditions.

Fun and Playtime
Remember that travel can be stressful for kids too. It can help to get older kids involved in planning the itinerary and familiarizing them with the customs of the destination. For younger children, make sure to bring along a familiar toy and some snacks. If you’re flying and have layovers, give kids a chance to stretch their legs and burn some energy. Schedule breaks into your trip itinerary—this can be something as simple as a playground stop for young kids or some downtime for older kids each day.

And last but not least, Dr. Nathan always loves to encourage parents to ease up on the pressure for the ‘perfect trip’ and focus on your true intentions for your trip—which we hope is to have fun, make memories, and of course, to enjoy the family adventure! Safe Travels!

About On Call International:
When traveling, every problem is unique–a medical crisis, a political threat, even a common mishap such as a missed flight. But every solution starts with customized care that ensures travelers are safe and protected. That’s why for over 25 years, On Call International has provided fully-customized travel risk management and global emergency assistance services protecting millions of travelers, their families, and their organizations. Contact us today and visit to learn more.