When traveling abroad, it’s important to be aware of eye issues that may occur. With proper preparation, you can best care for your eye health while away from home.

The most common eye issue travelers suffer from is pink eye, or conjunctivitis. It ranges in severity but is mainly characterized by red or pink discoloration in the eye and itchiness.

Before traveling, research where you intend to go and what medical care you can expect there. You’ll also want to understand any potential health threats in the area where you are traveling.

woman traveling on train

Common Eye Issues While Traveling

Conjunctivitis

Research into common eye diseases among travelers suggests conjunctivitis is the most common problem travelers deal with. Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is characterized by the following:

  • Red or pinkness in the eye
  • Swelling
  • Tearing
  • Itching or irritation
  • Burning
  • Discharge
  • The feeling of foreign bodies in the eye
  • Inability for contact lenses to sit correctly

Pink eye can come from several sources, including viruses, bacteria, and allergens. It often begins in one eye and then spreads to the other eye with viral infections. In allergic cases, it begins more or less simultaneously in both eyes.

Pink eye ranges in severity, and medical intervention is not always necessary. If you experience pain in your eyes or your symptoms worsen, seek medical help immediately.

In general, it is a good idea to get any eye health issue examined as soon as possible, even if no treatment is necessary. This helps reduce the risk that a serious problem is overlooked.

If you have a weakened immune system or a prescribed treatment doesn’t improve your symptoms within 24 hours, seek further medical care as soon as possible for pink eye to make sure you have your symptoms under control. One problem with conjunctivitis is a doctor may misdiagnose the cause, believing the source is bacteria when it is actually fungus, for instance.

Keratitis

Another common eye problem among travelers is keratitis. This is characterized by inflammation of the cornea, often caused by improper contact use.

Through improper use, contact lenses can get dirty, exposing the eye to viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites. These can all cause problems for the wearer, even leading to permanent vision loss in severe cases.

Travel can cause people to skip steps in their care routine more frequently, even as they also live a temporarily more active lifestyle. This means they come into contact with the organisms that can cause keratitis more often and are less likely to take the necessary precautions to kill these organisms.

Tropical Ocular Diseases

While not necessarily “common,” a fairly regular concern of travelers to tropical locales is exposure to diseases not present in temperate environments. This can also complicate diagnosis, as the traveler may receive their eye care‌ back home, where the doctor is less familiar with a foreign location’s local diseases.

Comparatively common tropical ocular diseases include the following:

  • Onchocerciasis
  • Ioiasis
  • Gnathostomiasis
  • African trypanosomiasis
  • Trachoma

Make sure to tell your doctor during your exam about any places you have traveled to in the past year, especially if you show unusual symptoms. This can help guide their diagnosis and consider scenarios that wouldn’t usually be relevant.

Eye Health Care Tips for Travelers

Always research the locales you hope to visit. Health care in developing areas isn’t always at the same level many people in the United States have grown to expect. This is especially important if you have health conditions that may require regular medical care.

Be aware of any local health risks, such as bacteria less common than where you live or higher levels of pollutants and other toxins.

Research the local water quality. In some areas, experts advise that you only use bottled water for all water needs.

While useful information for your general health, both air and water have the potential to introduce your eyes to contaminants. You ideally want to avoid these contaminants, but at least know which may cause issues if you cannot avoid exposure.

When visiting foreign countries, it can help to carry your basic medical history translated into the local native language. While many countries have adopted English as a lingua franca of medicine, some more remote areas may not have medical staff members who speak the same languages as you.

Many more may have staff with a passing proficiency in English. They may be better able to treat you if given information in their native tongue. Even better is having access to a guide who can help translate your needs to locals.

One useful tip for those who wear contact lenses is to wear glasses for the duration of their trip. The care routine for glasses is much easier and carries few health risks if not followed (at worst, a person’s glasses may get dirty).

Not following a proper contact lens hygiene routine can expose your eye to germs and other dangers. By switching to glasses, you can go about your day more quickly without risking your eye health by missing important steps in your care routine.

When to See a Doctor for Eye Issues While Traveling

As long as local facilities can meet a basic minimum level of care, schedule a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible for any unusual eye symptoms you experience. Short-term, very mild irritation, or symptoms that align with the way you’ve experienced allergies in the past likely don’t represent any major health concern.

Unusual, serious, or long-lasting symptoms warrant medical attention. If you experience any shift in your vision or serious pain, treat your symptoms as a medical emergency, even if doing so disrupts your trip plans. The same applies to similar serious symptoms, such as obvious swelling or unexplained color changes.

Some eye conditions progress quickly. It is important that you seek treatment quickly to prevent symptoms from worsening and doing permanent harm.

Keep in mind that health care while abroad is not inherently inferior. For example, studies show that European health care is as often as good, if not better, as American health care. In some cases, you may even receive superior health care at a lower cost than you could get at home.

Doctors in many developing countries are well trained. The actual obstacle in developing areas is often in relation to proper equipment and supplies.

Travel & Eye Health Guide FAQs

  • Is it okay to wear contacts overnight?

    Very few contacts are designed for overnight use. While skipping steps in your care routine is tempting during hectic periods, such as when traveling, it is better to stop using contacts altogether and switch to glasses if you lack the time to use your contacts properly. Misusing contact lenses can cause serious problems for your eyes.

    Only wear and use contacts as recommended by their labels. Follow the advice your eye doctor has told you.

  • Can flying affect eye pressure?

    Certain activities, such as scuba diving, mountain climbing, and flying, can affect the pressure your body is under. Because of the ways planes work when functioning correctly, the change in pressure while inside a plane is fairly minor despite the significant difference in altitude.

    As the American Academy of Ophthalmology notes, most eye conditions don’t worsen with air travel.

    One notable exception is retina repair surgery, where your doctor may inject a bubble of gas into your eye. This bubble is highly sensitive to pressure changes. Confirm you can travel anywhere, especially by plane, before doing so if you’ve had such a procedure done.

  • Can flying cause macular degeneration?

    Simply put, flying does not cause macular degeneration. You may read about pilots having their careers impacted by age-related macular degeneration, but this is because it is a condition associated with aging, and pilots are one group particularly impacted by vision problems.

    Additionally, most people with macular generation can fly safely. However, if you have had a recent procedure performed on your eye, ask your clinician before flying. As discussed earlier, it is unlikely a procedure will impact your ability to fly, but it is possible.

  • Can flying affect retinal detachment?

    Flying is not going to detach a retina or make retinal detachment worse. However, never fly without first authorizing it with a doctor if you’ve had retinal reattachment surgery. This is one of the few scenarios in eye health where flying can cause complications and seriously hurt your recovery.

References

Can I Fly With This Eye? (January 2017). American Academy of Ophthalmology. 

Common Eye Disorders and Diseases. (June 2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Eye Diseases in Travelers. (2020). International Maritime Health. 

Germs & Infections. (May 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, 2014 Update: How the U.S. Health Care System Compares Internationally. (June 2014). The Commonwealth Fund.

Pink Eye (Conjunctivitis): Symptoms. (January 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Doctor Will ‘See’ You Now: Online vs. In-Person Vision Tests. (March 2018). CNN.

Travel and Transport. (March 2022). Macular Society.

Utility of Teleconsultation in Accessing Eye Care in a Developing Country During COVID-19 Pandemic. (January 2021). PLOS ONE.

An Eye on Travel: An Overview of Travel-Related Ocular Complications. (September 2017). International Journal of Travel Medicine and Global Health.

Ocular Problems Associated Air Traveling. (March 2018). Advances in Ophthalmology & Visual System.

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