Health Issues for Traveling in China

Serious diseases are not a big problem in China. The most common ailment you are likely to encounter is diarrhea, which in most cases can be fixed with some anti-diarrhea medication such as Imodium. It can be very inconvenient and uncomfortable though, so exercise some precautions to avoid it. Travelers to certain regions of China should also be aware of malaria and high altitude sickness (see below). General health rules include the following:

  • Never drink tap water – drink bottled water only. Brushing your teeth with tap water shouldn’t cause any problems but some people use bottled water. Some people also avoid any drinks with ice to be on the safe side. Use your own discretion.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating them.
  • Avoid food that has been sitting around on buffet tables or is served tepid.
  • Avoid contact with stray animals.
  • Always practice safe sex. Chinese people can be somewhat lax about this. You should insist even if they tell you it’s not necessary.
  • Check the latest recommendations from the World Health Organization here.

There is probably as much likelihood that you will be involved in a traffic accident in China as there is of you catching a serious disease (both are rare). Travel insurance is a good idea just in case you have an accident.

Medicines, Contraception and Personal Hygiene

You will have no trouble locating a pharmacy in China. The trouble will likely be in explaining what you want or locating your desired product on the shelves. Watsons Pharmacies (health shops more precisely) are common in Chinese cities and are quite westernized with English labels on many products. These are the best places to look for common products like aspirin, vitamins, condoms and women’s sanitary items. All these products can also be easily purchased at western-style supermarkets or at Chinese supermarkets and pharmacies if you can decipher the labels. While condoms are easy to come by, it would be worth bringing your own supply of any other contraceptive device.

If you’re seeking any other medicine, you will likely require assistance from a Chinese-speaker. If you take any medication regularly, bring a sufficient supply with you or find out what it is called in Chinese before you travel.

Medical Care

The health system in China is quite good and using public hospitals wouldn’t be such a bad option except for communication problems. Major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Nanjing have clinics with English-speaking doctors (see the city guides for addresses). They can be very expensive, but might be worth the extra money if you have a serious problem. In cities without such services you will need to seek assistance from an English-speaking Chinese friend or hotel staff to act as a translator for the doctor.

Vaccinations

If you have been in countries where Yellow Fever is prevalent (some countries in Africa and Central/South America) within six days before entering China, then a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate is required for entry.

The recommended travel vaccinations for China are usually limited to typhoid and Hepatitis A. Tetanus, diphtheria, Hepatitis B and measles, mumps and rubella are also recommended, however, many people will already have had these vaccinations as a matter of course in their own country. Japanese B Encephalitis is also recommended for those who plan to spend a long period of time in rural areas during summer. A rabies vaccination might also be a good idea. While rabies can be treated after you are bitten, the procedure is much more simple if you have been vaccinated. Although it can be easier to simply avoid stray dogs.

Check with a doctor before you travel and see what they recommend. However, some doctors have a tendency to go overboard with stabbing your arms with various needles, so you might want to do your own research and use your own discretion as well.

Malaria

Although rare, malaria is present in some Chinese provinces, notably Hainan and Yunnan. However, there is no risk in urban areas or at altitudes above 1500m. The risk of contracting the disease in China might be fairly low, but since it is such a deadly disease it should be taken seriously. Consult with your doctor before you travel and read through the World Health Organization’s extensive information about malaria treatment and prevention here.

Altitude Sickness

This is principally of concern to those traveling to Tibet or high-altitude areas of Yunnan Province. There is no clear picture of who will be affected by altitude sickness – it can affect anyone and does not appear to be any more prevalent among the old or unfit than the young or healthy. This ailment can occur at an altitude of 2100m or higher but is more common above 2750m. Generally it is not particularly serious. Symptoms occur within 1-12 hours of reaching the high altitude and include headaches, nausea and fatigue. Basically you just need time to acclimatize. When you first arrive at a high altitude be sure not to do any strenuous activity and if symptoms occur, rest until they pass (usually within 24 hours). The most important thing is not to go any higher if symptoms occur or you risk potentially fatal conditions such as high-altitude pulmonary oedema or high-altitude cerebral oedema.