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If you ever stop by the pharmacy before a trip, you might be grabbing plastic bags for airport security, travel-size toiletries or picking up medication before you leave home.
But pharmacists can do much more than just fill prescriptions: For travelers going abroad, they can provide a range of services, from health consultations before their trip to administering vaccines.
“Pharmacists who have training in travel health will likely be much more up to date (than the average primary care provider), not just on the clinical aspects of some of these specialized vaccines and medications, but also access to information that’s very itinerary specific,” Dr. Keri Hurley-Kim, an associate clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, told USA TODAY.
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What kinds of services can pharmacists provide to travelers?
Pharmacists that offer travel medicine services can provide travelers with consultations before their trip to help them prepare.
They can then administer vaccines, initiate prescriptions and dispense medications, and even order labs, though the scope of what they can offer varies by state. In California, for instance, pharmacists can independently provide any travel-related prescription medications like antimalarial drugs or antibiotics, said Dr. Jeff Goad, a professor of pharmacy practice and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the Chapman University School of Pharmacy.
That may not be the case depending where travelers live, and the types of vaccines pharmacists can give varies, too. “All states allow pharmacists to give vaccines, but not all states allow pharmacists to give all vaccines,” he said.
Some large chain pharmacy locations have trained travel health pharmacists, Hurley-Kim said, and independent pharmacies may advertise those services as a specialized part of their business. The International Society of Travel Medicine also maintains a directory of travel clinics, she noted.
When in doubt about what services a pharmacist offers, Goad recommended calling to ask.
Do chain pharmacies offer assistance to travelers?
Walgreens pharmacists, for instance, can help travelers determine what vaccines they may need and can administer doses of polio, typhoid and Japanese encephalitis vaccines, among others. Some vaccines may not be available at all stores, according to a spokesperson. The vaccines are also subject to state and age restrictions.
“Walgreens pharmacists are trained via a 3hr CE course about travel health created by the clinical team,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Travelers can also find information about Walgreens’s services and schedule vaccine appointments via the pharmacy chain’s website.
While CVS Pharmacy offers a range of vaccines it does not have a “formal travel health offering,” a spokesperson said by email. MinuteClinic locations do offer travel health services, however.
What are the other benefits of seeing a pharmacist before traveling?
Pharmacies can also offer convenience. Some stock items that can come in handy during travel, such as bug spray, insect nets or remedies for ailments like traveler’s diarrhea, Goad said.
If a trip is coming up soon, travelers may also be able to get into see a pharmacist faster than a primary care doctor, for instance. “Generally, in a pharmacy, you can get an appointment within 48 hours,” said Goad. “That’s the norm.”
When should travelers see a pharmacist before traveling?
Just because travelers can get an appointment quickly doesn’t mean they should wait until the last minute.
Hurley-Kim recommended coming in one to two months before a trip, particularly because some vaccines require multiple doses. “Four to eight weeks is a really kind of sweet spot where we know we’re probably going to be able to get in all of the vaccines and medications that you need without it being so soon that things may change by the time you go,” she said.
Pharmacists can help you determine whether you may need a consultation and other services before travel and will consider some key factors:
► Where you are going: “For example, a trip to West Africa is a very different trip than to Mexico in terms of the disease risk, the range of diseases, those kinds of things,” said Goad.
Hurley-Kim said the vast majority of travel health patients are visiting Africa, Central America, South America and Southeast Asia.
► Your risk factors: “If you are an 85 year old with chronic heart disease, versus a 20 year old with no medical problems, you also have a very different trip ahead of you,” said Goad.
►What you are doing when you get there: Consider your itinerary, as well. Someone taking a business trip may need to prepare differently than someone planning to climb mountains, for instance.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends travelers be up to date on their routine vaccinations. “If you are not vaccinated, international travel increases your chances of getting and spreading diseases that are not common in the United Sates,” the agency said on its website.
Some countries may also require travelers to show proof of certain vaccinations on arrival, such as the yellow fever vaccine, according to the CDC. Travelers can find destination-specific recommendations and requirements on the agency’s website.
How much does seeing a pharmacist before travel cost?
The cost of travel health services can vary widely, according to Hurley-Kim. She said a pharmacist will typically charge an appointment fee for the first visit, and she has historically charged around $60, though she offers discounts for groups like students and senior citizens. Health insurance providers are unlikely to cover that cost.
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Routine vaccines, like those for hepatitis A and hepatitis B, that are also commonly used in travel medicine are likely to be covered, she said. Whether specialty vaccines are covered depends on the individual insurance plan.
The price of vaccines ranges depending on the type and how many doses are in a series. The rabies vaccine, which Hurley-Kim said is “kind of infamously expensive,” may cost between $300 and $400 per dose and travelers need at least two doses. Others can run between $50 and $200 and may require fewer doses.
Health insurance will generally cover medications provided by pharmacists as part of these services, according to Goad.
Even if you don’t think you need to talk to a pharmacist before your trip, you may find it useful. “It never hurts to ask,” said Hurley-Kim.
Do you consult your doctor or pharmacist before a trip? Why or why not?
Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at email@example.com.