Staying Healthy in the Caribbean

A few precautions will keep you safe and healthy while traveling in the Caribbean

Photo credit: © Nikola Bilic |

High health, medical, and safety standards are consistent throughout the Caribbean region. Ironically, sunburn may be the biggest health concern you'll face on your island vacation, but you may be inclined to take basic precautions to avoid any untimely ailments.

Medical Preparations

If you plan to travel to any location in the Caribbean with prescription medication, you will probably encounter some questions as you make your way through customs.  The best course of action is to arrive prepared.  All medications should be carried in their clearly marked original containers, alongside a note signed by your physician.  This note should detail what the medicine is, and why you need it.  Avoid packing numerous medication in a "Day of the Week" pill box, because these are often confiscated.

While medical emergencies are not hugely common as you travel, you may experience small health concerns, such as a head ache, or perhaps the common cold.  By packing a Travel Medical Kit, you can avoid having to make a trip to the drug store, where you may find brand names you are unsure of, or prices that are not to your liking.  Include the following in your kit:

  • Painkillers including acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen;
  • Antihistamines;
  • Topical disinfectant;
  • Antacids;
  • Rubbing alcohol;
  • Bandages;
  • Thermometer.

Potable Water and Food Safety

There are very few places in the Caribbean where the water is not safe to drink. On most islands, ground water is filtered by either coral or volcanic rock; others boast sophisticated desalinization facilities. However, bottled water is widely available on nearly every island if you want to play it safe or simply prefer the taste. In Mexico, Guadeloupe, and the Dominican Republic, bottled water is suggested at all times.

Traveler's diarrhea is not a prevalent health risk in the Caribbean, but rare cases do occur. Traveler's diarrhea results from ingesting contaminated water, fruits and vegetables, unpasteurized milk and milk products, ice, and uncooked foods. It can usually be cleared up with over-the-counter medicines or at-home remedies such as chamomile tea and purified water; for the most acute cases, try a Caribbean home remedy, a solution of ½ teaspoon salt and 4 tablespoons sugar to one quart of water.

One medical risk is Cigatuera, a neurotoxin found in fish that normally feed on reefs. This toxin is not a problem in Caribbean hotels and restaurants as these establishments take extra precautions when selecting fish to serve guests, but be wary of catching and cooking reef fish yourself. Be particularly cautious of amberjack and barracuda. In fact, before heading out on a fishing expedition, ask for guidance on the prime spots to catch cigatuera-free fish. Symptoms of exposure to cigatuera include tingling in the fingers, mouth, and toes.


Medical expenses in the Caribbean can be costly, so acquiring proper medical insurance coverage is important. In fact, even if you do have insurance, many hospitals and medical treatment facilities require payment at the time of service. Most health insurance policies--except for Medicaid, Medicare and certain HMOs--cover medical expenses incurred while traveling. Call your insurance company a few weeks prior to traveling to the Caribbean to ensure you have sufficient coverage. If your policy does not have a provision for medical care while traveling, consider one of the following companies which offer supplemental policies for medical bills incurred while vacationing:


Company Contact Information
MEDEX International 800-527-0218
Travel Assistance International 800-821-2828


Currently, there are no major health warnings to heed in the Caribbean, but you can always contact the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s 24-hour automated hotline for up-to-date, factual information: 888-232-3228; fax: 888-232-3229; on the web: Also take note of the following vaccination information:

  • If your trip to the Caribbean originates from a yellow fever-infested area, you must obtain a certificate declaring immunity from this disease before entering the region.
  • Sporadic cases of hepatitis A and B have been reported on some islands. If you are not up-to-date with immunizations against these diseases, it is advised that you do so prior to your trip.
  • Cases of cholera, dengue fever, malaria and typhoid have occasionally been reported in the Caribbean; immunization against these diseases is up to your discretion.

Outdoor Precautions

Mosquitoes can be a slight annoyance in the Caribbean, and they are usually a bigger health problem in more underdeveloped areas. Mosquitoes pose a larger threat in Haiti and the Dominican Republic because insects in these places may carry malaria and chikungunya. Cases of the later were reported in St. Martin, St. Maarten, Dominica, Guadeloupe, the British Virgin Islands, and Martinique in 2014.  Bring along a few varieties of insect repellent to keep the bugs at bay, and if you are planning to stay in a more rural area, consider investing in some mosquito netting for your sleeping quarters. Avoiding standing water can also help you avoid this Caribbean medical risk.

Perhaps more of a nuisance than mosquitoes are "no-see-ums." These tiny insects have the ability to fly through screens and they mostly surface after the sun goes down or after a rainstorm. A strong insect repellent is the best "no-see-ums" deterrent. There are no health or medical implications to these bites.

The tall and bushy manchineel tree can be found all over Caribbean beaches. They produce a poisonous fruit similar in appearance to a small, green apple; the tree's toxic fruit is rumored to have been penned the "apple of death" by the men from Columbus expedition. Do not touch the trees or stand underneath them if it is or was recently raining--the rain causes the tree's sap to drip and when the sap of a manchineel comes in contact with skin, it causes severe blisters or a rash. When strolling the beaches, be sure to ask a native to identify a manchineel tree for you so you can safely avoid them.

If you plan on going scuba diving, make sure you do so more than one day in advance of your return flight because it is not safe to fly within 24 hours of diving.

Sunburn may seem like an inevitability in the Caribbean, but there are certainly ways to prevent it while still enjoying the area's beaches:

  • Pack and use a waterproof, high sun protection factor (SPF) sun block, a hat, a pair of sunglasses, and a lightweight long-sleeve and long-pant outfit.

  • Always take extra care to protect sensitive or exposed areas such as bald heads, ears, eyelids, nose, shoulders and tops of feet.

  • Pace yourself - a severe burn in the Caribbean can occur in fewer than 20 minutes.

  • Take extra precautions against burns during the peak sun hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

  • Gauge the sun's severity: If you are outside and your shadow is not visible, your chances of getting burned are greater than they would be if your shadow were noticeable.

  • Remember that the chances of getting sunburned greatly increase while in or on the water.

  • If you experience chills, a headache, dizziness, fever, or nausea as a result of a sunburn, seek medical attention.

Treatment On The Islands

Nearly all the islands in the Caribbean have medical clinics and hospitals with English-speaking employees. A list of recommended clinics, dentists and doctors is available at the front desk of most hotels. Some resorts geared toward families even employ an on-site nurse or can refer you to an on-call physician. If you are in need of medical attention, consult the front desk for a doctor recommendation or directions to the closest clinic or hospital. Many islands also have emergency and ambulance services. Inquire upon arrival to help ensure your health during your stay.


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