China, particularly Beijing, is a very safe place to travel. However, there are a few things you probably ought to know.
The main risks are from pre-existing medical conditions and injury (for example traffic accidents), and common ailments like travellers’ diarrhoea. Remember to wash fruit, and avoid tap water.
Some visitors to Beijing develop a Beijing Cough (and soar throat) in their first few days in the city. This is because of the combination of pollution and dry cold air, and invariably clears up quickly.
It is strongly recommended that that you get comprehensive travel insurance before you go. If you are uninsured cost of emergency repatriation can be enormous. The consequences of poor medical treatment can also be dire.
Take a basic First Aid kit with you.
You could also consider taking:
A Yellow Fever vaccination certificate is required from all travellers coming from infected areas. If travelling from South America or Africa, check with your doctor to see if you need certification.
If you’re taking medicine already…
If you need to bring medication with you, get a signed and dated letter from your doctor explaining what the medicine is for. This is doubly important if you need to carry needles. In the same vein, it’s sensible to leave medicine in its original packaging to avoid confusion.
Bring spare medication in case of loss or theft, and store it in two different places (like you would with your cash!).
Although some short term travellers to Beijing choose not to have any vaccinations, you should consult your doctor for the most up to date advice.
Start your health planning six months before you leave, some vaccinations require several injections over a period of time.
It will probably be recommended that if not already, you should be vaccinated for the following diseases:
Diphtheria and tetanus. Probably a booster jab. Can cause a sore arm.
Hepatitis A. One jab protects for about a year, then a booster for about 20 years. About one in ten people experience mild headaches and a sore arm in the days after the jab.
Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B vaccination involves a course of three injections over six months, although there is quicker method available. The result is lifetime immunity in most people. Side effects are rare, and amount to a headache and sore arm.
Measles, Mumps and Rubella. Two doses of a combined vaccine unless you’ve had the diseases. Can cause a rash and flu-like symptoms. Controversial for child use in the UK, but studies criticising it have been discredited.
Typhoid. A single shot lasts for about two years, although protection is not 100%. Tablets are available instead of an injection, but they are no more effective and more likely to cause side effects.
Varicella. Otherwise known as chickenpox, this disease can be deadly, talk to your doctor if you haven’t had it.
Some travellers may also require the following:
Influenza. Usually recommended to those over 65, or people with medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer or HIV. One dose lasts a year.
Japanese B Encephalitis. If you’re travelling to rural areas, especially during the summer, this may be recommended.
Pneumonia. Usually recommended for over 65s, or for people with medical conditions (see Influenza). A single injection is given, and then a booster after five years.
Rabies. Rabies vaccination requires three shots over 1-2 months, with the option of a booster after five years, which will lasts for about 10 years. Side effects can include a sore arm and headache. Strongly recommended for travellers to Tibet.
Tuberculosis. Tuberculosis vaccination will probably be recommended by your doctor for children under five, and possibly for high risk travellers.
Malaria tablets will probably be recommended by your doctor if you plan to travel to Yunnan or Hainan. They are not necessary for travellers to Beijing.
A lot of people don’t even think of it, but jet lag is a major issue. How it effects you depends on which way you’re flying, your age, level of health, and sleeping patterns. Jet lag can result in insomnia (even though you haven’t slept for days), as well as general fatigue and nausea. When you’re in this kind of state, your immune system becomes less effective too.
If you want, you can try to adjust your sleeping patterns to a degree before you go, by working out what you’d be doing if it were Beijing time, and doing it. Some people don’t find this helps. It’s pretty hard to fall asleep at 3pm if you’re going to be flying to the other side of the world the next day.
When you get to Beijing, you must adjust to the new pattern as soon as possible. This means sleeping and eating according to Beijing time if possible. Natural light is great for convincing your body it’s really meant to be awake. Drink plenty of water, avoid alcohol, and don’t overeat.
Deep Vein Thrombosis occurs due to the prolonged immobility of long distance travel. Blood clots form, and whilst most are reabsorbed and don’t cause any harm, some can break off, head to the lungs, and put you in danger.
The symptoms to look out for are pain and swelling of the calves, ankles and feet, and chest pain and difficulties.
Avoid alcohol and tobacco, and get up and wander around the cabin occasionally. Contract and relax the muscles of your legs.
If you do become ill, we would recommend you jump in a taxi and ask to be taken to the nearest hospital rather than call an ambulance.
If you suspect you may be ill, don’t waste time, see a doctor as soon as possible.
Chinese hospitals are not bad, but most ill people are more comfortable, and will get better treatment, if they see a doctor with whom they can communicate effectively.
Your embassy or insurance company can recommend reputable healthcare practitioners.
If you need to buy medicine in China, it can be much cheaper to get a prescription from the doctor first, and then buy it yourself from a pharmacy. However, go to a pharmacy recommended by the doctor, if you choose one yourself there is a (very small) chance of getting poorly stored or fake medication.
Tap water in Beijing and China should not be drunk. You will probably be provided with a flask of boiled water. This will be safe to drink but doesn’t usually taste all that nice.
Avail yourself of any of the many varieties of cheap bottled water. Check the seal before you drink it.
If you’re going off the beaten track, iodine is an effective chemical purifier, water filters and purification tablets are available at travel stores.
Eating out in restaurants is the place you’re most likely to get the travellers’ diarrhoea, (travellers’ tum, backpackers’ belly etc) that seems to effect people wherever they travel in the world. It seems that people from any country have problems adjusting to any other county’s fare, including when Chinese people travel from Beijing to the West, and vice versa.
To be on the safe side, avoid salads and uncooked food, peel all fruit (this is very important in China),eat only freshly cooked food, and avoid buffets where the food has been sitting around for hours.
Eat in busy restaurants that seem to attract plenty of locals.
While many shun street food because it seems unhygienic, a deep fried squid on a skewer does have the advantage that you can watch it being cooked, and demand that it be thrust back into the vat of boiling oil for a bit longer if you’re not satisfied.
Even the Chinese government admits that STD infection rates are probably much higher than official figures. If you do have sex, use protection. Health experts recommend that you go to the toilet, and shower, after sex.
If you have any worries at all, get an STD check as soon as you can.
In the bathroom of your hotel you might find some interesting little sachets of liquid, which tell you (in very entertaining, sometimes rather rude Chinglish) that they are intended for the post-coital ablution of the genitalia. There are sometimes two different kinds, for him and for her. Although their medical benefits are not proven, it is a good idea to wash after sex.
Local condoms are sometimes of doubtful quality. Imported brands are widely available, but watch out for fakes. To avoid fakes, the best place to go is the supermarket, not the seedy sex shop just down the hutong.
If you have any reason to think you might develop tooth problems, or if you’re going to be in China for a long time, get your teeth checked out before you go.
It is not recommended that you use drinking water for brushing your teeth in Beijing or elsewhere in China. Whilst many Chinese people and expats don’t have a problem with it, first time visitors can find it causes sore, swollen gums and toothache.
Bring your own toothpaste. Whilst internationally recognised brands are available in supermarkets, toothpaste provided by hotels is very ropy.
Dehydration or a lack of salt cause heat exhaustion. Drink plenty, and don’t do anything too taxing in the heat of the day, summertime Beijing can be stifling.
When you get too cold. More a problem in the mountains of Tibet than springtime Beijing, but Beijing can also be extremely cold. Even if it looks like it’ll be a nice day, carry a spare layer in the winter, and wear a hat.
For prevention, see the sections on food and water. Diarrhoea is the most common problem faced by travellers anywhere. It’s cause by bacteria and therefore responds to antibiotics. Whether or not you choose to use them is up to you – how ill do you feel and how quickly do you need to get better?
The alternative is ‘stopper’ medicine to last you until the infection works its course.
If infected with diarrhoea, drink plenty of water and use a rehydration solution.
This tiny microbe grabbed and held the world’s attention for several weeks in 2003. It is a respiratory illness with a high mortality rate. It began somewhere around Southern China in 2002, and infected over 8000 people, killing about 800.
Although slow to react to the initial outbreak, the Chinese authorities eventually gave a highly effective response, which involved virtually closing down the country.
SARS has not reared its head since 2003, except in the case of laboratory workers who were accidentally exposed to the virus.
In China, SAR stands Special Administrative Region (one of the Southern Cities given an early introduction to capitalism). Since these areas are near the places where SARS began, the Chinese (not the government) dubbed it tèqūbìng (特区病) – Special Administrative Region Syndrome.
Bird flu or Avian Influenza H5N1, is a variety of the influenza virus. The virus is present in the blood, urine, faeces and saliva of infected birds. In 1997 the first recorded case of bird-human transmission occurred in Hong Kong. So far there have been no instances of human-human transmission, and (some) specialists believe it now appears likely that H5N1 will not develop into the pandemic that was once feared.
Keep up to date and consult a health expert close to your time of travel. If infections are reported, avoid poultry, contact with live animals, and areas which could be infected with the faeces or urine of poultry.
Bilharzia is spread by tiny worms found in some water snails. In China you only need worry if you swim in lakes and rivers around the Yangzi basin (central China, hundreds of miles away from Beijing). Symptoms do not show themselves until irreversible damage to the internal organs is done. If you come home and realise you might have done something silly, a blood test and effective treatment is available.
Not a problem in Beijing, but mosquitoes are common throughout Southern China, especially Hainan and Yunnan.
As well as malaria, they can cause dengue fever, which has similar symptoms to malaria, but also causes a rash around the torso. Dengue haemorragic fever tends to effect children, watch out for a tendency to bruise or bleed easily, if in doubt consult a doctor.
The key with mosquitoes is to avoid being bitten. Wear long sleeves and light colours, use repellent on exposed skin. There’s still no substitute for blasting them with 40% DEET, but it can have side effects if used for a long time.
If travelling to infected areas, bring a mosquito net. Best are the kind which either need no hooks at all, or hang from a single point. Tuck the edges in properly and sleep away from the edges.
Bedbugs are not dangerous, but do itch. Use antihistamine.
Ticks attach themselves to you when you go walking in rural areas. They usually go for the belly, underarms and behind the ears. If you find ticks and experience any symptoms like a rash, aches and pains or fever, see a doctor.
China has a poor record in the area of blood transfusions. Heartbreaking incidents much publicised in the West resulted in many donors being infected with HIV. The true figures involved are still not clear, and it is not clear whether infected blood remains within the system. If you need a blood transfusion, get out of China. Likewise, it would be unwise to give blood whilst in China.
If you wish to undergo acupuncture, make sure the doctor is using needles which have never been used before.
Wonder at the Great Wall, be awed by the magnificent Forbidden City, drink in the scenery from a boat on the Summer Palace’s Kunming Lake.