When packing to travel abroad, there are a lot of things you don’t want to include: heavy electronics, that sweater you never wear, free weights, a 12-pack of Coke because you’re “worried we won’t be able to buy it anywhere else!”  To that list you can add sickness.  There are a lot of ways to get sick before or during travel, but luckily there are also ways to avoid it. When coming into the United States, it is important to be aware of what you need to do to keep your health up to date, to avoid getting ill, or infecting your hosts.

This article will focus on normal illnesses, but a lot of the tips hold true for preventing major ones as well. Obviously, everyone is worried about the next global pandemic, which will most likely be spread thanks to the frequency and ease of air travel. But it isn’t that difficult to avoid the major illnesses, and there’s a lot you can do to avoid the less serious illnesses as well.

The Center for Disease Control

The Center for Disease Control is in Atlanta, Georgia. Luckily, fun study-abroad trips will not include time spent here.
Image from gmu.edu

What you need and what you want when coming into the USA

Given the history this country has had with previously-unknown strains of germs, it is somewhat surprising that the United States doesn’t require any vaccinations to enter the country.  But that is what having a top-flight epidemiological research center and a strong health infrastructure will do.  That being said, there are some things you should take care of before traveling to the U.S.

There are seven major diseases the U.S. has largely eliminated thanks to vaccination and, depending on what country you are coming from, you may have already been vaccinated against these as well. These seven are measles, mumps, diphtheria, rubella, polio, pertussis, and tetanus. Because they have been more or less dealt with, Americans would be more susceptible to a slightly mutated strand that may originate in another country. It is recommended (and generally polite, anyway) to make sure that you have vaccinations up to date.

I say “largely” instead of “entirely” wiped out because there has been an increase in the outbreak rate of some of these diseases, namely pertussis (also known as “whooping cough”, which is a pretty explanatory name) and the measles. Most cases of measles outbreak happen because of someone traveling internationally bringing it back to the United States.  So, it is good for you to update your vaccinations.  

Pertussis is a little more complicated, as there have been “homegrown” outbreaks of late. This is due to a number of factors, not least of which is a rise in anti-vaccination activism. Pertussis is most common among infants, but the group with the second-highest infection rate is teenagers, so if you are coming to the United States to study it is a very good idea to make sure you are protected.

The Flu

The flu is no fun at all. You feel feverish, achy, nauseated, weak, tired, etc. For most young, healthy people, though, the flu is only a “blip” in the scheme of things, a temporary sickness that is forgotten once you feel healthy again. But dangerous strains of the flu have been some of the biggest killers in the history of mankind. This is one of the pandemics referred to earlier. Even if we aren’t talking about a killer flu, you should still try to avoid it by making sure your influenza vaccination is up to date. In the northern hemisphere, flu season runs from roughly October to April, coinciding almost perfectly with the school year, so you are going to want to make sure you are protected. After all, you can become sick as easily as you can get other people sick.

There are some excellent ways to prevent getting the flu while you are here in the US, in addition to vaccinations. Here are some of the top tips, according to flu.gov, the government’s flu prevention site.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs spread this way.

  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

  • Practice good health habits. Get plenty of sleep and exercise, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat healthy food.

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.

  • If you are sick with a flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicine.

That last one is key- don’t attempt to brave it, and don’t rush out the second you think you feel better. I know there is the temptation not to miss anything while studying in the U.S., but your body is still weak and you could relapse, not to mention you risk infecting others at a crowded school (and if you are feeling better but all your friends are sick, you’re probably not going to have a very good time, anyway!).

There are a lot of things to consider regarding staying healthy while studying abroad, and we’ll get into some of them- how to stay safe while flying, what to do if you do become ill- in later articles. Don’t get the wrong idea, of course: you aren’t entering a terrifying land of germs and disease. But sickness can happen anywhere, and a few easy, common sense precautionary steps can help ensure your time in the U.S. doesn’t involve a tour of our hospital system.



The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.