Taking care while you are on holiday

If you have, or have had, cancer, it is important to take care while you are on holiday. There are some things you will need to think about before you travel.

Eating and drinking

Wherever you are in the world, be careful about what you eat and drink. Many infections are spread by contaminated food and water. This includes water in:

  • swimming pools
  • lakes
  • rivers
  • the sea.

Try not to swallow water when you are swimming.

It is important to wash your hands regularly, especially before handling food.

If you are at risk of infection because of cancer treatment, you need to be extra careful about what you eat and drink. Infections can be more serious and difficult to treat if your immune system is weak. Make sure you get advice before your trip.

You can find information about the risks of contaminated food and water in specific countries at:

Tips for avoiding stomach problems

  • Drink bottled water if you are not sure that the water is clean. You can also use this to brush your teeth. Make sure seals on bottles of water are not broken before you open them.
  • If you are not sure that the drinking water is clean, you should sterilise it. You can do this by boiling it for one minute, or by using a filtering system or sterilisation tablets.
  • Do not have ice in drinks, unless you are sure it is made from safe water.
  • Only eat freshly cooked food that has been cooked thoroughly and is still hot. Avoid leftovers and reheated food.
  • Avoid uncooked food. This includes fruit, unless you can peel it or remove the outer skin or shell yourself, salads and uncooked vegetables.
  • Be careful when eating shellfish, as it may contain harmful bacteria. Make sure shellfish is cooked thoroughly, or avoid eating it.
  • Avoid food that may have been exposed to flies. This could include buffet food that may have been left out for some time and food from street traders.
  • Avoid ice cream from unreliable sources, such as street stalls. Only eat ice cream made from pasteurised milk, which has been heated to a high temperature to kill any bacteria.
  • Avoid or boil unpasteurised milk.
  • Always wash your hands with soap and clean water after going to the toilet, and before eating or preparing food. If clean water is not readily available, use disposable wipes or alcohol hand gel.
  • Pack anti-diarrhoea medicine when you travel, such as Imodium®, Pepto-Bismol®, Lomotil® or Normaloe®.
  • Pack rehydration powder, such as Dioralyte®, Dioralyte Relief® or Electrolade® sachets. These help to replace body fluids that are lost when you have diarrhoea.

Taking care in the sun

If you have had chemotherapy

Some chemotherapy drugs can make your skin more sensitive. This can sometimes last for several years after treatment. Ask your cancer doctor or specialist nurse if you need to take special care to protect your skin.

Some people also find chemotherapy makes their skin sensitive to chemicals, such as chlorine. You may need to avoid swimming in pools that are treated with chlorine. It is best to avoid hot tubs and saunas because bacteria and other germs grow faster in warm water.

If you have had radiotherapy

The skin in the area treated by radiotherapy stays sensitive for many years. You need to take extra care to protect it from the sun, especially for the first year. The skin in that area is at a higher risk of burning and long-term sun damage, including skin cancers.

If you have had targeted or immunotherapy drugs

Many targeted therapy drugs and immunotherapy drugs can make your skin sensitive to the sun. Your skin may burn more easily than normal. Ask your doctor or nurse if you need to take special care to protect your skin.

Tips for protecting yourself in the sun

Following these tips will help make sure your skin does not burn:

  • Protect your face, neck and ears with a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Cover up with long-sleeved tops and trousers or long skirts. If you have had radiotherapy, keep the treated area completely covered.
  • Wear light, loose and comfortable clothes made of cotton or natural fibres. These have a closer weave and give better protection from the sun.
  • Wear sunglasses with a guaranteed ultraviolet (UV) light filter. These protect your eyes from the sun’s burning rays.
  • Use sun cream with a high sun protection factor (at least SPF 30) and a 4 or 5 star UVA protection rating. This should protect you against both UVA and UVB (types of radiation from the sun). Follow the instructions and re-apply as recommended, particularly after swimming or washing.
  • If you have lost your hair or it is thinning, cover up with a hat or headscarf to protect your scalp. If you do not want to cover your head, use sun cream that has an SPF of at least 30 on your scalp.
  • If you are using insect repellent, apply your sun cream first and then spray the repellent on top.
  • Stay out of the sun during the hottest part of the day (usually between 11am and 3pm). Heat can make cancer-related Tiredness (fatigue) worse. Try to sit in the shade, even at other times of the day.
  • Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. But remember that alcohol or drinks with caffeine in them can make you dehydrated.
  • If you want to look tanned, use fake-tanning lotions or sprays instead of sunbathing or using a sunbed.

There are more tips on the NHS website.

Insects

In some countries, many diseases can be spread by insects and ticks. Always use insect repellent, preferably containing up to 50% DEET (diethyl-m-toluamide). This is the main ingredient that makes insect repellent work.

Try to cover up your skin as much as possible, especially if you are going out at night. Mosquitos that can spread malaria tend to bite from dusk until dawn. It is best to wear loose fitting clothes, long sleeves, trousers or long skirts.

The National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) website has further information on ways to avoid insect and tick bites.

Animals and rabies

Animal bites and scratches can cause dangerous infections. It is important to be careful and avoid contact with animals abroad, even if they seem harmless. Animals in many places, especially in Asia, Africa and Central and South America, can carry rabies. It is not found in the UK, except in a small number of wild bats. There is a map showing the risk of rabies in different countries on the World Health Organisation website.

Rabies is a rare, but very serious, infection of the brain and nerves. It is usually caught from the bite or scratch of an infected animal, such as a dog. An animal licking an open wound can also put you at risk. It is important to treat any wound straight away and get urgent medical help.

If you have treatment for rabies before any symptoms appear, it is very effective. But once symptoms appear, rabies cannot often be cured and is usually fatal. If you are travelling to an area where rabies is common, you can have a vaccine before your travel. You must normally pay for this.

If you are scratched or bitten, it is important to follow these steps:

  1. Clean the wound with soap and running water straight away and for at least 15 minutes. If there is any rabies virus on the wound surface, this can help wash some of it away and reduce the risk.
  2. Use an antiseptic containing alcohol or iodine to disinfect the wound, and then cover it with a simple dressing.
  3. See a doctor straight away, even if you had the rabies vaccine before you travelled. You will need extra treatment urgently.

You can watch a useful video with advice for travellers on preventing rabies.

There is more information on the NHS webpage about rabies.

About our information


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.