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Traveling This Summer? Don't Forget to Pack Good Health

This column originally appeared in the June 2, 2008, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Summer is coming, and it’s time to start planning to load up the kids and go for a road trip.  Gas prices will keep some of us closer to home, but if you’re planning to hit the road this summer there are a few things you might want to consider.

Most people wouldn’t think of taking a trip without making a list of what to pack, labeling their luggage, and being sure they have information about hotels and other accommodations.  Yet these same people stride out their front doors with little or no thought to family health emergencies that may come up during the trip.

“Knowing how to get help in an emergency is really a key to having peace of mind, and to having a good outcome should some emergency arise,” says Dr. Ken Haller, a pediatrician at SMM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and associate professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.  “With a little planning you can make sure your vacation memories are good ones.”

Haller says many of his own memories of family vacations are grounded in 8-hour drives from his home on Long Island, N.Y., to visit relatives in Pittsburgh, Pa.

“This was the 1960s, so of course we had a Mercury station wagon with the fake wood on the side.  Every summer Dad would put down all the seats and we kids would get back there with our sleeping bags so he could leave at 4 a.m.,” Haller recalls with a smile.  “It was a lot of fun but in retrospect I’m amazed we all survived it.”

Stay Safe in the Car
Whether you’re in a wood-paneled behemoth or a gas-sipping hybrid, safety recommendations are much more detailed than they used to be.  For trips by car, the American Academy of Pediatrics ( advises:

  • Always use a car safety seat for infants and children under 40 pounds.  A rear-facing car seat should be used until your child has reached one year of age AND weighs at least 20 pounds.  Once your child is at least one year of age and at least 20 pounds, he can ride in a forward-facing car seat, but it is better to keep him rear-facing to the highest weight and/or height allowed by his car safety seat.
  • A child who has outgrown her car safety seat with a harness (she has reached the top weight or height allowed for her seat, her shoulders are above the top harness slots, or her ears have reached the top of the seat) should ride in a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle’s seat belt fits properly (usually when the child reaches about 4' 9" in height and is 8 to 12 years of age).
  • Never place a child in a rear-facing car safety seat in the front seat of a vehicle that has an airbag.
  • All children under 13 years of age should ride in the rear seat of vehicles. 
  • Set a good example by always wearing a seat belt.
  • Children can easily become restless or irritable when on a long road trip.  Try to keep them occupied by pointing out interesting sights along the way and by bringing soft, lightweight toys and favorite CDs for a sing-along.
  • Plan to stop driving and give yourself and your child a break about every two hours.
  • Never leave your child alone in a car, even for a minute. Temperatures inside the car can reach deadly levels in minutes, and the child can die of heat stroke.
  • In addition to a travelers’ health kit with prescription and over-the-counter medications, parents should carry drinking water and snacks, child-safe hand wipes and diaper rash ointment.

Bring Medications, Immunization Records
Today’s savvy parents travel with a detailed list of their children’s medical conditions and medications, as well as their immunization records.  It’s also a good idea to have contact information for your child’s pediatrician and pharmacy, in case you should need to contact them from the road.  If you need a pediatrician for non-emergency care while away from home, you can locate an American Academy of Pediatrics member physician at

Parents of children with chronic health conditions like asthma, allergies, heart conditions, or diabetes, are accustomed to taking special precautions because the child’s condition is part of their daily existence, Haller says.  He points out, however, that all children are susceptible to vacation health issues.

Accidents or illness sometimes occur during vacations because the child is engaged in unfamiliar activities, such as horseback riding or hiking, or because travel to different climates may trigger allergies.  Food allergies may also flare up, since eating in an unfamiliar environment may make it more difficult to know what is used in preparing meals.

Smart Ideas for Packing Your Suitcase
The Centers for Disease Control ( says there are a number of things that should be packed in your family’s road trip kit, including:

  • Insect repellent containing DEET (up to 50%)
  • Sunscreen (preferably SPF 15 or greater)
  • Aloe gel for sunburns
  • Digital thermometer 
  • Oral rehydration solution packets
  • Basic first-aid items (adhesive bandages, gauze, Ace wrap, antiseptic, tweezers, scissors, cotton-tipped applicators) 
  • Antibacterial hand wipes or alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol
  • Moleskin for blisters 
  • Lubricating eye drops
  • First aid quick reference card

 Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.



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