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5 Weird Diseases You Can Catch While Traveling

From the hacking passenger behind you on the airplane to the sketchy ice in that tropical destination, souvenirs aren’t the only things that travelers are bringing home with them. You could also return from abroad with one of these weird diseases.

Weird Diseases You Can Catch While Traveling

It’s not unusual to come back to reality with a cold or flu that you picked up while away, but that isn’t the worst that can happen. These weird diseases will make you wish your biggest complaint was the fight over the armrest.

Traveler’s Amnesia: Transient Global Amnesia

The Symptoms: You wake up in a place with no memory of how you got there or who you are.

How It Happens: Scientists still aren’t entirely sure. An estimated 3 to 10 people out of every 100,000 contract this weird disease, and a 2006 study found that 96 percent of subjects fell between the ages of 51 and 80, with an almost even split between men and women. Scientists have found that the incidents are higher with migraine patients and those susceptible to heart disease.

How to Avoid It: It may not be the travel itself that triggers this weird disease, but rather the things people use travel to escape—such as conflicts at home or work and financial stress. It could also be related to the drug triazolam (often used to minimize jet lag), and there have been reports of people suffering from transient global amnesia after taking too much of a sleep aid.

Swimmer’s Regret: Schistosomiasis

The Symptoms: A rash and itchy skin can be the first telltale signs that something is wrong. When accompanied by fever, chills, cough, or muscle ache, pay attention.

How It Happens: You spotted a body of water that looked cool and refreshing, and you jumped in without a second thought. You shouldn’t have. Schistosomiasis is contracted after you’ve been exposed to contaminated freshwater (rivers, lakes, ponds).

How to Avoid It: This weird disease is most prevalent in certain areas of Africa, the Middle East, South America, Asia, and the Caribbean. Talk to your travel doctor about your plans before heading out. There’s no preventative medication, but treatment immediately upon return can make a huge difference. Better yet, stick to ocean and pool water for your swims.

Barefoot Nightmares: Hookworm

The Symptoms: Itchy feet and painful blisters are signals that something isn’t right. Given that you’re most likely in a tropical destination, the symptoms are easy to misunderstand as harmless bug bites—but the swelling that starts shortly thereafter is a dead giveaway.

How It Happens: Those days of walking barefoot on the beach can leave you with remorse. Hookworm larvae live in the sand and penetrate your skin as you stroll. The good news is that, once diagnosed, it can be treated in one to three days. The bad news? You’ve got worms in your feet, and it’s nothing a pedicure can hide.

How to Avoid It: Add flip-flops to your beach routine and avoid skin to sand contact in areas that might be affected.

Sleeping Sickness: African Trypanosomiasis

The Symptoms: Despite its nickname, the disease actually disrupts sleep cycles if it progresses to a second stage. Initial symptoms are most likely to include fever, itching, joint pain, and headache.

How It Happens: Victims get this weird disease through the bite of an infected tsetse fly. Trypanosomiasis is actually a parasite; the fly’s bite is simply the way it’s transmitted. The flies are common across sub-Saharan Africa. If left untreated, African trypanosomiasis can cause irreparable neurological damage or even death.

How to Avoid It: Use many of the same avoidance techniques you’d use with mosquitos. DEET sprays and light-colored clothing will help deter the critters. But even long sleeves and pants may not be enough if they aren’t at least a medium-weight fabric; the fly can bite through thin cloth.

Fishy Eats: Ciguatera

The Symptoms: Within a few hours of eating fish, you’ll know. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are common side effects. But it can get worse: Neurological issues including tooth pain and blurred vision have been noted.

How It Happens: You’re by the ocean, so the best meal to consume is a whole fresh fish. Bring on the grouper, sea bass, sturgeon, and red snapper, right? What you don’t know is that your meal has been eating toxic microorganisms that live around coral reefs. The risk of this illness is highest in fish from the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

How to Avoid It: Unfortunately, there’s no telltale smell or visual cue to help you avoid the risk.  Your best bet? Stick to snorkeling with those pretty fish. But if you do choose a seafood meal, try to avoid the worst culprits (barracuda and moray eel), as well as fish organs, where toxic levels can be magnified.

Have you ever caught one of these weird diseases?

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Heather Greenwood Davis is a lifestyle journalist and National Geographic Travel columnist. Follow her on Twitter @greenwooddavis or keep up with her family’s adventures on

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