Stay Healthy While Traveling in Cuba

No matter where you travel, it’s always important to stay healthy. When I got sick in Cuba I had to postpone my cross country bike ride, and I spent a lot more time vomiting than I would have liked. The worst part about it was that it could have been prevented if I had just been a little more careful. The EMT in me doesn’t want the same thing to happen to you, so I decided to put together some information on staying healthy in Cuba.

Many of the warnings in this post come from a page written by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) on Health Information for Travelers to Cuba. Any additional advice is from my personal experience in Cuba.

Pre-Travel Vaccinations

Shots for all: Vaccines keep Airmen healthy

The CDC recommends that travelers consider receiving the following vaccinations before going to Cuba.

For Most Travelers

  • Typhoid
  • Hepatitis A

It is possible to contract either Typhoid or Hepatitis A by ingesting contaminated food or water. If you received scheduled vaccinations as a child, you are likely already protected from Hepatitis A, but it doesn’t hurt to check.

For Some Travelers

  • Rabies
  • Hepatitis B

Rabies can be found in dogs (there are many strays), bats, or other mammals in Cuba, and outdoor enthusiasts might consider protection. Hepatitis B can be contracted through sexual contact or through contact with contaminated needles (like when getting a tattoo).

Talk to your doctor if you have any questions about vaccines before traveling.

Health Insurance

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but I know that US health insurance is not valid in Cuba. It is required that you purchase temporary Cuban medical insurance before arriving. Don’t worry – it only costs $25 and is usually taken care of when you purchase flights through a US airline. Make sure to check with them if you are unsure. These policies purchased with your flights are valid for 30 days from the time of your flight, and you can purchase an extension in Cuba if you are staying longer.

Don’t lose your boarding pass! Your boarding pass is proof that you purchased valid health insurance, and you need it to obtain medical assistance. If you do find yourself in medical trouble, find a hospital or policlínico (polyclinic) where you can get professional help.

Insect Bites – Zika Alert!

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The CDC is currently alerting travelers to the risk of transmission of the Zika virus to anyone visiting the country. A Level 2 Alert means that mosquitoes in Cuba are infected with Zika virus and are spreading it to people, and travelers should practice ‘enhanced precautions’ when visiting the country. To learn more about the Zika virus and its effects, I recommend further reading on the CDC site – Zika Virus in Cuba.

When it comes to insect bites, some bugs are more problematic than others. In Cuba you may encounter mosquitoes, ticks, and sand fleas, and as usual their bites could transmit various diseases. Sand fleas are only a minor nuisance on beaches and won’t be covered here.

Mosquitoes

I didn’t really notice many mosquitoes in Havana, and they didn’t cause me any trouble at night. But there were swarms of them in Viñales, so where you go can make a difference. The best way to ward them of is insect repellent containing at least 20% DEET.

DEET products instruct you to avoid putting the substance directly on your skin, so instead apply it to clothing, bedsheets, and travel gear. Try to sleep in air conditioned or screened rooms as this will decrease your exposure to mosquitoes at night.

If you are bitten, you can apply Hydrocortisone to the bites for relief.

Ticks

If you go out into the farmlands or the wilderness of Cuba, you might leave with a tick hiding somewhere on your body. Again, insect repellent containing at least 20% DEET will keep ticks at bay, but make sure to check for ticks every 4 hours while you’re outdoors. When the day is over, perform a full body check on yourself and other travelers.

If you find a tick, don’t freak out. It’s easy to remove them, but you must do so correctly to achieve a clean removal. Using fine-tipped tweezers or your fingers, grab the tick as close as possible to the skin’s surface, and pull it straight out. Don’t twist it. Don’t squeeze the body. Don’t burn it. Pull it straight out. This helps to prevent the head from breaking off, and it keeps the tick from transmitting any foreign bacteria into the host during removal.

Kill the tick by submerging it in alcohol, wrapping it in tape, or flushing it down the toilet. For more detailed instructions, check out this CDC page on ticks.

The Sun

The sun over the beaches of Cuba is a huge draw for tourists, but you should take a few measures to protect yourself from its powerful heat. The sun often shines for the majority of the day, and it doesn’t take much exposure to cause you harm. Keep an eye out for these problems on your trip.

Sunburn

Everyone burns in the sun, especially if your skin is as pale as mine, and bad sunburn can easily ruin a vacation by causing pain or even illness. Always wear sunscreen when you’re outside under the Cuban sun! Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going out, and reapply it every 2 hours or so to keep yourself protected.

Different sources have varying recommendations on what SPF level your sunscreen should be, but most tend to agree that 30 SPF and up (broad spectrum) is safe. I used both 30 SPF and 50 SPF during my trip, and I didn’t have any problems.

Walk in shadows where you can, and make sure that you bring the sunscreen you need from home as it may be difficult to find in Cuba.

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Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is a condition caused by your body overheating as a result of prolonged exposure to high temperatures. The most noticeable symptoms are high body temperature and dry skin (you stop sweating), and you may feel pretty nauseous. You should notice symptoms of general heat exhaustion long before things are bad enough to experience a full heat stroke, but always pay attention to your physical state. Actually getting to a heat stroke could be fatal.

Thankfully, it’s very easy to avoid heat-related illness by drinking lots of water and by staying out of the sun where possible. If you feel like you’re overexerting yourself, stop and take a break in the shade, and maybe order some jugos naturales for a quick boost. It’s hot in Cuba, but don’t let it ruin your fun.

Also remember to be careful when drinking alcoholic beverages in the sun. They will make it harder for your body to regulate its temperature, and it would be wise not to overdo it.

Food and Drink – How I Got Sick

Travelers to Cuba are most likely to get sick after eating or drinking contaminated food or water. It takes a while for our bodies to digest food, so if you get sick don’t assume the last thing you ate was the cause.

Here are some guidelines to help you enjoy Cuban cuisine.

Solids

  • Stick to cooked food that is served while still hot.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables in clean water and peel before eating.
  • Always wash your hands before eating!

Liquids

  • Drink water that you know is filtered (it’s from a sealed bottle or you filtered it).
  • It’s safe to have canned drinks like beer or tuKola (try one!).
  • Jugos naturales (fresh, unmixed juice drinks) are safe and great for you in the heat.

Avoid

  • Don’t drink unfiltered tap water.
  • Ice cubes made from unfiltered water can be hazardous (ask vendors about it).
  • Stay away from juice drink mixed with water – it’s usually unfiltered tap water.
    Beware water bottle ‘refill stations’ – you may be getting unfiltered tap water.

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Cuban Street Food

Many sources (including the CDC) state that travelers should not eat street foods. Unsanitary conditions or the use of unfiltered tap water in the cooking process may be a health hazard. I agree with this as a general rule, especially for unseasoned travelers.

However, I also like street food! Yes, it can be dangerous to eat street food, but I don’t think the rules have to be so black and white. You just have to pay attention to what you’re eating, much like with restaurant food. Stick to hot foods, fried or boiled so bacteria are killed, and continue to avoid any mixed drink of unknown origin and you should be okay. I enjoyed churros and boiled corn straight from carts on the street with no problem.

(I’ll soon to tell you that I got very sick, but that was before I ate any street food and was an unrelated incident.)

In the end it’s up to you if you want to try the street food in Cuba. No one is forcing you.

Bring a Water Filter

As you may have noticed before, water safety is huge for tourists. The general expectation for travelers in Cuba is that we will always purchase and drink only bottled water while in the country. It’s a good rule, but bottled water is somewhat scarce and sells out quickly.

That’s not an issue if you take a portable water filter with you. Being able to filter your own water from the tap and store it for later use is a big money saver, and you’re less likely to have water troubles on your trip. I took a Sawyer Water Filter (a membrane filter) and some plastic pouches with me to Cuba, and I never ran out of water while I remained in the city. (However, I did almost run out of water while biking to Viñales.)

In my opinion, wise travelers have some sort of water filter with them at all times. You never know when it could save you.

If You Get Sick – WISS

If you do get sick from food or drink, you’ll definitely know it. I spent a full night in Havana endlessly vomiting in my hostel bathroom with some bonus diarrhea the next day, and I was unable to keep any new food or drink in my system for around 15 hours. My stomach was under attack.

Getting sick like this can be dangerous, but I’ve come up with a simple acronym that can help you recover safely. Just remember WISS, and you’ll be back on your feet in no time!

  • Water (filtered)
  • Imodium (Loperamide)
  • Salty foods
  • Sleep / rest

I’ve already written about WISS before, so I won’t take up more space with it here. If you want to learn more about it, take a look at WISS – Dealing with Sickness while Traveling Abroad.

Sexual Safety

Cubans are sexy. There’s no ignoring that. You also can’t ignore the fact that having sex in Cuba puts you at risk for contracting Zika, Hepatitis B, HIV, and plenty of other STDs. Just like at home, practice safe sex by using latex condoms during intercourse with anyone you don’t know.

 

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Not just sex. Liberation.

 

Sexual safety is pretty standard fare no matter where you travel, but I specifically bring it up here because of Cuba’s history as a hotspot for sex tourism. One of the many undesirable results of this practice is that it facilitates the local and international spread of disease, and by participating in it you increase the risk of disease for yourself as well as others around you.

I don’t condone the practice of sex tourism on moral and ethical grounds, but since I can’t stop you from participating I will at least ask you to prevent the spread of disease. Wear a condom, or make sure your partner is wearing one.

Stray Animals

On your trip you’ll see a lot of stray dogs in Cuba, and maybe even a few cats. Some might be cute, but it’s safe to say they’re all pretty dirty. From questionable skin conditions to horrible substance buildup around the eyes, those dogs have it rough. If you decide to interact with them (as many do), just don’t touch any sores or open wounds. Don’t let them rub their eyes on you or lick your face. And always wash your hands immediately after coming into contact with these animals.

I love dogs as much as the next guy, but I don’t think you want to catch what they have.

What to Bring

I’ve discussed a lot of different topics in this post, so it’s totally fine if you forgot anything that was mentioned. To help simplify things, I wrote up a short list of the items I recommended you bring, and I’ve included a few extra ‘good to include’ things as well.

Mentioned Above

  • DEET (at least 20%) insect repellent
  • Sunscreen (at least 30 SPF, broad spectrum)
  • Water filter
  • Water container(s)
  • Hydrocortisone
  • Boarding pass (don’t lose it!)
  • Latex condoms

Good to Include

  • Band-aids
  • Neosporin
  • Sanitizing wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
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Old pharmacy on Calle Obíspo in Habana Vieja

If you have any questions for me about anything I’ve discussed in this post, please let me know in the comments below, and I’ll be sure to fill you in. Thanks for reading! Healthy travels.


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