It is very important to make good preparations regarding healthcare before you travel to Sri Lanka in order to enjoy your holidays at the fullest. Sri Lanka is a tropical country, which means a high average temperature and intense sunshine, different bacteria and germs which might affect your health, the risk of harmful insect bites etc. In this introduction you will find the most important information. More detailed information you can find on the website of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention www.cdc.gov
It is advisable to consult a doctor, a medical centre or a specialized hospital in tropical diseases to have you advised about the necessary vaccinations and other prophylaxis to avoid illness while in Sri Lanka, especially regarding malaria and dengue prevention. It is better to make the necessary arrangements about six weeks before departure. Some vaccinations and prophylaxes need to be taken a certain period before being effective.
During your stay in Sri Lanka
There are several point of attention to avoid health problems which you should take as a serious warning.
Protection from sunshine
In the first place there is the risk of sunburn, especially for those with a pale skin. Sri Lanka is situated close to the equator, so the radiation from the sun is mostly more intense than in your countries. You should be very careful with exposure to sunshine. Sunbathing is best done in the early morning, up till 11.00 and late afternoon hours from 03.00 pm. Protect your skin with a high protection sun cream. Apply the cream some time before you expose yourself to the sun and apply regularly. If you haven’t been exposed for a long time, start with a high protection number (20) and slowly work it down to lower numbers. Repeatedly apply new sun cream, especially after swimming. You may apply an after-sunbath-cream whenever you have finished your sunbath. Take into consideration that exposure to the sun while swimming or snorkeling makes the risk for sun burning much higher. While snorkeling, it is advisable to wear a T-shirt. Severe sun burn can be dangerous and may lead to a shock. Please consult a doctor when this has happened. Moreover, a long exposure to the sun may lead to a sun stroke, which may have severe, long term consequences and might even kill you. Take breaks regularly to cool down the temperature of your body and be in the shade and wear a hat or cap. Drink a lot of water to avoid dehydration.
Food and water
Bacteria and germs can easily be transferred through food and water. You should be very careful by where you take your food. Hygienic standards are generally good in Sri Lanka, but not everywhere, so it is best to take your food from a hotel which conducts a kitchen with high quality standards; they could either be hotels where international guests are common, restaurants of international standard or with local people whom you can trust regarding food and hygiene. Avoid street food and local restaurants (called hotels). Eat your meals freshly cooked and boiling hot. Some hotels use a buffet system. The food may be exposed to the open air for some time. If you use a buffet, eat as soon as the buffet is opened. Avoid eating raw, uncooked or undercooked meat and (shell)fish. It is not uncommon that during the first days of your stay you might have some diarrhea, due to your long journey, tiredness, different climate and the exotic food, but it will mostly become normal soon. The so called ‘travelers’ diarrhea’ usually occurs in due of the first week and will last between three and five days. Children and elderly people, as well as those he has another medical problem are advised to consult a doctor. You should also ask medical advice when the diarrhea comes with fever and vomiting. In case you catch a food poisoning with severe, long lasting diarrhea, it is better to consult a doctor. Sometimes you might also have some stomach ache and vomiting. The risk of drying out is high with diarrhea and vomiting, so it is advisable to keep drinking bottled water. In most of the cases the stomach problems are innocent and temporarily, so do not worry too much, but go to see a doctor in time, he will give you some medicine to recover soon.
It is advisable for travelers to Sri Lanka always to take sealed bottled water (mineral water). If sealed bottled mineral water is not available, make sure that the water is boiled before use. In international hotels and (beach) restaurants you can take ice cubes without fear; they are usually made from boiled water. Avoid unfiltered well-water. Make sure that the bottles are sealed when they bring them at your table. Don’t accept unsealed mineral water bottles. During your journey always take a bottle of mineral water and drink water regularly in this hot climate, avoid dehydration.
Bites from insects and other animals
Try to avoid insect bites. The most regular bites you will experience are from mosquitoes. They are active around sunset , in the early evening and around sunrise. However, the mosquitoes which carry the dengue bacteria are mostly active during daytime. Dengue is a serious form of malaria and may even be life threatening if not treated in time. Dengue appears particularly after the monsoon rains. Dengue is spreading worldwide nowadays and should be taken seriously. There are dengue outbreaks regularly, most commonly in the urban areas. The mosquitoes carrying the dengue bacteria mainly develop in places with non moving water. The government of Sri Lanka has taken strong measurements to fight dengue. The best way to protect yourself from insect bites is to sleep under a mosquito net. Make sure that there are no holes and openings in the net. If there is no mosquito net available, sleep under a van or in an air conditioned room. Besides you should apply repellent, special creams or lime/lemon juice on the open areas of your skin when sitting outside. Avoid shorts during the times when the mosquitoes are active; wearing socks and other body protection may prevent bites too. Symptoms of dengue fever are a flue kind of feeling, a severe headache, sometimes vomiting, muscle pain and a red rash; these symptoms may indicate a dengue fever, so it is recommendable to consult a doctor when the symptoms have not disappeared after two days. A simple blood test can indicate if it is dengue or not. Always take the safe way and the advice of a doctor.
Dogs, cats and other animals
In Sri Lanka there are many street dogs. They are usually harmless and won’t bother you during the daytime. However, it is advisable to stay away from them, not to touch and play with these dogs. They have not been vaccinated and may carry rabbies. When you come with people in their houses and they have pets which are being separated from the outside world you can ask the owner if you can touch them. Never start running for a dog, he might come behind you. In the night time the street dogs gather and make a troop. Then the streets where they operate are theirs. Be careful at that time. Take a three-wheeler or taxi to let you bring to your lodging place.
Caution is also to be taken when trekking through the countryside, rural villages and through jungle areas. It is not only dogs which might carry rabies, cats, monkeys and bats may carry the disease as well. If you got bitten, immediately consult a doctor.
Most other insect bites are not harmful and the risk to be stung by a snake is very rare; snakes mostly stay away from humans. Nevertheless it is advisable to go to a doctor and describe the insect or animal that has stung you.
Leeches can be a nuisance. They suck your blood, but are harmless. There are plenty of them in the rain forests and in gardens with grass after rainfall. They are good jumpers and try to reach your foot and legs. Whenever they are in the process of taking your blood, it is better to let them finish their job. If you try to remove them, the head may be left under your skin, which may cause an infection. If you put salt on the leech, it will sort of turn into a liquid. To protect yourself against attacking leeches, put salt and lime/lemon juice on your feet and legs, wear shoes, socks and jeans and close your jeans to prevent them to come inside your trousers.
Medical Care in Sri Lanka
There are two types of hospitals in Sri Lanka: general hospitals and private hospitals. In Sri Lanka the people rarely go to a general practitioner, but mostly directly to one the hospitals. The private hospitals are more comfortable for treatment, but for emergency cases, the general hospitals are better equipped and the staff more experienced. Of course there are also very good private hospitals, especially in Colombo. Doctors serve in both general and private hospitals. Medical care in Sri Lanka is regarding specialism on a good level. All doctors can understand and speak English.