Ladies - these travel tips are just for you!
Every week, I am proud to co-host the #girlstravel twitter chat - the only twitter travel just for female travelers.
For the week of March 11, the theme surrounds "women's issues" - you know, the kind of things only women have to deal with when they travel! (Caution, male readers: hormones are involved!).
It made me think about how most people bring a bit of an emergency kit with them when they travel (first aid, sewing kit, matches). Maybe the prudent female traveler needs some decidedly feminine backup as well when she travels!
Before travelling, especially for long trips, ensure you are in good health with regular health check ups and maintaining your regular schedule for pap tests, mammograms, blood work, and more. Set aside extra time to talk with your doctor about the topics below and make sure you are well informed and comfortable in your choices. Pharmacists public health nurses, sexual health clinics, and women's health advocacy groups can also be a great source of information.
The following is based on my personal experience - and not meant to be formal health advice. Here are some of my tips to cope with tricky hormonal situations when you travel - and some very practical supplies to bring along.
1.) Bring a reliable form of birth control. Birth control pills must be properly stored, away from moisture – a Ziploc bag should work well. Take one more pack than you think you need and consider storing it separately from your main pack. If you accidentally lose some or your trip gets extended, you will be prepared. Remember, most hormonal birth control must be used for a full menstrual cycle before it's considered fully effective. Speak with your pharmacist to make sure there are no contraindication between hormonal birth control and any special medication you'll be taking when you travel (like anti-malarials).
There’s a great article on the pros and cons of different birth control and strategies for carrying it with you for long term round the world trips from Erika at OverYounderlust.
What if you are post menopausal and joyfully never having to think about birth control again? Then bring along what you want and need to make the sex GOOD sex! Lubricants and treatments for vaginal dryness will keep you feeling healthy and feeling good. And you still bring along STD protection (see below!). Women over 40 have one of the highest rates of new STD infections.
2.) Bring a reliable form of STD prevention, regardless of your romantic intentions. Consider it the lowest priced insurance you can buy. Purchase high quality products, store them in a dry Ziploc bag, avoid extremes of temperature, and make sure they are away from anything that can puncture them (like pens, jewelry hooks). Even if you won’t use them, consider them invaluable for helping a new friend! When you leave to go back home, consider donating them to a health clinic in need.
3.) Consider bringing a back-up form of combined birth control and/or STD protection. Only you know your comfort level of taking risks in this department. Travelling can loosen inhibitions, give a sense of freedom, and present opportunities for romance not ordinarily found at home. Many travellers like to have a back up plan to be on the safe side. Remember that the wide variety of high quality products you can find in your home drugstore may be impossible to find in a developing world – and could potentially be awkward and embarrassing to find in a developed country that doesn’t speak your language. Could you find your favourite spermacide in Burma? How would you ask a pharmacist in Prague or Dubai for cervical caps or the birth control sponge? Be prepared, be prepared, be prepared.
By the same token, you might want to consider bringing along a pack of the morning after pill. Everyone has their own comfort level with this, but it is a good example of a product that might be difficult to obtain when you are away from home.
4.) Expect some difficult periods when you are away. Worsened cramps and bleeding can result from disruption in your usual routine and nutrition and hormonal fluctuations. I've heard from many women who have not had a period in many months, and they think that menopause has finally set in and settled down, only to start again when they travel. What gives!!??
I usually travel with a combination of both Advil and Tylenol and I find the combination of anti-inflammatory and pain killers work well for me. If there is something that you use for the occasional bad period at home, make sure you bring it with you. Remember to have all medication properly labeled (even vitamins and herbal preparations) and that prescription medication should be in it's original container. If you have any concerns about travelling with any form of medication, bring a note from your doctor explaining why the product is recommended. (You do not want to be detained at customs for unmarked Tylenol with codeine, or a suspicious looking herbal relaxation tea)
While it may take some time to get used to, many travelers swear by a Diva Cup or a Keeper. These reusable menstrual collection cups take little room and weight, are environmentally friendly, pay for themselves before long, and can be a lifesaver in regions where there aren't proper garbage disposal systems for tampons and pads. I still recommend taking a small supply of tampons or pads with you – even just 2-3 of each. You might feel like changing things up for a day or two, and once again you might be able to help out a friend. As always, use your best judgement about your own health and body. If some intuition is telling you that there is something more serious going on than a tough period, listen to that voice. Better safe than sorry!
5.) These same period hijacking hormones can also have the opposite effect. Instead of a demon period you might get... none at all. Like that doesn't cause a boatload of unneeded anxiety! Stress, compromised nutrition, crazy hormones can all contributed to having a lighter period or none at all. If you a travelling for more than a month, bring along a high quality, brand name, easy to read and interpret pregnancy test. When out of the box, they take very little room. Wrap the instruction sheet around the test and secure with a rubber band. Gone for more than 6 months? Bring two tests, from two different brands. Not knowing the answer to this question, right away, with confidence, would drive me to absolute distraction. If you have even the vaguest of plans for sexual activity with a male partner, bring a test along.
When I was living in Lilongwe, one of my roommates found herself on an unexpected romance with another housemate. Can you imagine trying to find a pregnancy test in one of poorest countries in the world. And when we did find one, it had no instructions inside! The result was a weird symbol that we still can't figure out! Not even a community nurse knew what it meant! Her stress was through the roof. To her relief, she was not pregnant, but it had everyone walking on (fertilized?) eggs for over a week.
6.) Fluctuating hormones can easily translate into more acne breakouts. While your toiletries may be limited, you can still bring along high quality, pure products to help sooth and heal your skin. A gentle exfoliating scrub (like Eminence's dry powder Strawberry Rhubarb Dermaexfoliant or St. Ives Apricot Scrub) can help pores stay clean. Speak with your pharmacist or doctor to get a recommendation for an acne spot treatment/ prevention cream. You often only need a tiny amount and these companies often produce micro-sized sample tubes.
7.) Yeast infections and urinary tract infections make reliable appearances for female travelers especially those in the tropics. Harsh, full strength antibiotics obtained overseas will happily produce the worst yeast infection of your life and the combination of sexual activity, changes in body hydration, and stress on your kidneys can produce surprise UTIs (And unlike Eat Pray Love, you will not have a best friend/village medicine woman to save you!) Once again, speak with your doctor and pharmacist There are simple, space effective remedies you can bring with you for your health and comfort.
8.) Bring along everything you need to be comfortable. This is your trip -you should be in good health and comfort and enjoy every minute of it. If you have crazy night sweats and always change pajamas in the middle of the night, then bring along an extra pair or two. Who cares if you give up an extra sweater in your bag? Be comfortable, sleep through the night. Your only comfort from blinding period pain is a hot water bottle and hot chocolate? Pack it! Give up the extra pair of jeans or shoes and make the space. It doesn't matter how cute you could potentially look if you are stuck in the hotel room under the covers..
9.) Be discrete. Here in Canada, it's not unusual to sit in a cafe and hear a group of women loudly chatter as they laugh about hot flashes, or try to outdo each other with birth stories. We're used to a certain kind of openness here. But in many other countries the mindset can range from being much more reserved (women in Paris would never act this way!), being much more private and inconspicuous (Japan, Korea, Italy, Argentina) to almost being taboo (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Malawi, Zambia). Being respectful of different cultures isn't about repressing yourself. It's about making other women, local women, feel comfortable and unembarrassed, and sometime it's about keeping yourself safe.
10.) Beware unsavory products, both at home and abroad. Who honestly is buying those feminine washes? There can't be a gynecologist alive who things they're a good idea! And while many local remedies may work in different countries, you will likely not have enough knowledge to make a safe guess. Pay the money, take the time and energy to find a certified, registered physician. I hold a membership to the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers. It is a non profit, charitable organization that provides its members with extensive information on how to find quality medical care with fully qualified, registered physicians (usually English speaking) in every country in the world.
Finally, be reassured. The overwhelming majority of women travel safely and healthfully. This post is meant to both encourage good, preventative health and to provide ways you can safeguard your well being. My writing always comes back to value - getting the most for your time and your money. To me it is a waste to lose a day of your dream vacation wallowing in bed or writhing with worry, and/or running around a strange town, buying strange products. When you consider that preventative planning on your behalf can potentially benefit a fellow female traveler in need, or even eventually a local medical clinic, I think it's well worth a short pharmacy trip and a bit of organization.
Good luck on your travels - I wish you nothing but good health and lots of wealth wherever you go!
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