Women, men differ in travel-related ills

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Traveling around the globe can make anyone fall ill, but men and women tend to differ in the types of illnesses they suffer, a new study finds.

Locals walk to the beach at Hithadhoo at Addu Atoll December 9, 2009. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

In a study of almost 59,000 international travelers, researchers found that women were more likely than men to come down with bouts of diarrhea or other gastrointestinal problems, colds, urinary tract infections and adverse reactions to medications, such as those taken to prevent malaria.

Men, meanwhile, had higher risks of fever, including from infections transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks or other such “vectors,” such as malaria, dengue and rickettsia.

Men were also more likely than women to be treated for mountain sickness, frostbite or sexually transmitted diseases.

The findings offer travelers and travel-medicine specialists a clearer idea of how to prepare for international trips, according to the researchers, led by Dr. Patricia Schlagenhauf of the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

For example, they write, female travelers should be especially sure to bring anti-diarrheal medication. And while all travelers need advice on preventing mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria, the researchers note, men may need to pay particular attention to preventive measures, like frequently reapplying insect repellent.

The findings are based on data from 44 travel-medicine clinics throughout the world, all of which are part of a surveillance network designed to track travel-related ills and injuries. Schlagenhauf and her colleagues looked at records for 58,908 patients who visited those clinics between 1997 and 2007.

Of 29,643 women, one-quarter were treated for acute diarrhea, compared with 22 percent of men. When other factors were considered -- like the length and destination of the trip -- women were still anywhere from 13 percent to 39 percent more likely than men to seek treatment for diarrhea or symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, which include diarrhea, constipation and abdominal pain.

Just over 3 percent of men were treated for malaria, and roughly the same number sought treatment for dengue, which is also transmitted by mosquito. That compared with rates of 1.5 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively, among women.

Overall, just over 17 percent of men had some type of fever-inducing illness, versus 11 percent of women.

The exact reasons for the sex difference are not clear. One possibility, according to the researchers, is that men make “more attractive hosts” to mosquitoes because the insects are lured by sweat. Excessive sweating also washes off insect repellent.

As for gastrointestinal ills, women may either be more susceptible to them, or they may be more likely than men to seek treatment for them, according to Schlagenhauf’s team.

Just over 1 percent of men visited a travel clinic for a sexually transmitted disease, with men being one-third more likely than women to do so. Past research, Schlagenhauf and her colleagues note, has shown that men are more likely than women to have sex with someone they meet overseas.

“Safe sex advice is a missing component in most pre-travel practices,” the researchers write, “and our study suggests that male travelers, in particular, would benefit from greater preventive efforts.”

SOURCE: Clinical Infectious Diseases, March 15, 2010.