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Health in Colombia - Info. Colombia

Many people prior to travel get too preoccupied with the dangers associated with tropical diseases and what they will do if they fall sick. Other than the somewhat inevitable and rarely threatening diarrhea associated with changes in diet, very few travelers suffer serious illness when inside Colombia. A key to avoiding sickness while abroad is preparation. Although less equipped in rural areas, most Colombian cities have good health facilities and numerous pharmacies that will provide medicines in the eventuality that you become ill during your travels.


One obvious precautionary measure is to take out travel insurance that covers medical necessities. Bring along a copy of your insurance card or policy. If you are undertaking travel for an extensive period of time there are a few recommendations to consider before departing. A dental check-up could prove useful. For those who suffer from diabetes, heart trouble/cardio-pulmonary disease, high blood pressure or cholesterol problems, consultation with your doctor is highly advised.


Pack a small first aid kit with any medicine you take on a regular basis, plus some anti-diarrheal pills, aspirin, insect repellent and sunscreen. Most of these items are available in cities all around Colombia, however if you prefer or require a certain type or brand—hypoallergenic, for example—it is best to bring it from home than to risk not finding what you want. Mentacol (mentholated rubbing alcohol), which is available at local pharmacies, provides refreshing relief to insect bites. Insurance companies recommend taking written records of any medical conditions and their proper names of any medication you are taking.


For more information on traveling and diseases, consult the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control (, the U.K.’s National Travel Health Network and Centre ( your embassy’s website. Another useful independent site is the British-based Travel Health (




Altitude Sickness

When traveling in the Colombian Andes it is important to rest the first few days and drink lots of bottled water. Should you suffer from a severe headache, drowsiness, confusion, dry cough, and/or breathlessness, drink lots of water and rest. If the symptoms continue, move to a lower altitude. Anyone planning to hike at high altitudes is advised to relax in high altitude locations for a few days before any physical exertion. Note that altitude sickness, locally called soroche, can come on suddenly if you experience a sudden change of altitude. You may suffer from it when traveling to the likes of Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy. Sickness can also affect locals so be prepared and take care!




Frostbite is simply the freezing of the skin and is more commonly suffered at higher altitudes. This can usually be avoided if you wear proper clothing—double thick socks, gloves and a ski-mask can all help. Wear water-resistant clothing and change out of wet clothes immediately if you can. Smoking and drinking alcohol also raise your risk because they decrease your circulation. The most common places to get frostbite are on the hands and feet, although exposed facial areas like the ears, nose and cheeks are also vulnerable areas. The first signs of frostbite are usually tingling, numbness, and discoloration of the skin to white or yellow. When you begin to warm up you will start feeling pain in the affected area, and it may turn red and swell. The best way to treat frostbite is to soak the skin in warm, but not hot, water until feeling returns. Only begin treatment when you are safely out of the cold.



Fungal Infections

These are most common in hot and humid areas and generally accumulate between the toes or fingers, or around the groin. Spread by infected animals or people, fungi thrive in moist conditions. If you suffer from a fungal infection it is best to ensure the affected area is kept dry and clean and avoid scratching. Wear loose clothing and avoid artificial materials. Treating with anti-fungal cream or powder can also help.



Motion Sickness

Even the hardiest of travelers can be hit by motion sickness on the buses in the Andesor boat trips along the coast or to Malpelo Island. Sit near the front of the bus or stay above deck on the boat and focus on the horizon. If you are prone to motion sickness, eat light, non-greasy food before traveling and avoid drinking too much, particularly alcohol. Over-the-counter medications such as Dramamine can prevent it. Eating ginger candy or drinking ginger tea 20 minutes before a trip also provides relief to many. If you suffer from severe motion sickness, you may want consult a pharmacist to get a prescription for something stronger.



Sunburn/Heat Exhaustion

Even at high altitudes where cool breezes constantly blow and snow can accumulate, the sun is incredibly strong. Apply sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30 every few hours you are outside. The sun on the coast is particularly strong and unprepared visitors can get badly burned. If you get severe sunburn, treat it with a cream and stay out of the sun for a while.


To avoid overheating, wear a hat and sunglasses, and drink lots of water. Overweight people are more susceptible to sun stroke. The symptoms of heat exhaustion are profuse sweating, weakness, exhaustion, muscle cramps, rapid pulse and vomiting. If you experience heat stroke, go to a cool, shaded area until your body temperature normalizes and drink lots of non-caffeinated drinks, like Gatorade, to replenish vital salts. If the symptoms continue, consult a doctor.



Traveler’s Diarrhea

This is probably the most common illness that travelers suffer from. There is no vaccine to protect you from traveler’s diarrhea; it is avoided by eating sensibly. It is most often transmitted by food, though also by contaminated water. Eat only steaming hot food that has been cooked all the way through in clean establishments. Avoid raw lettuce and fruit that cannot be peeled, like strawberries. Vegetables are usually safer than meat. Some supermarkets stock vegetable wash and this can be a good way to ensure clean fruit and vegetables if you are cooking your own meals. Make sure any milk you drink has been boiled. Avoid ice cream that could have melted and been refrozen, such as anything for sale in the street. Use purified water. You can filter or boil it, or use Aguasafe purifying drops, which are available at pharmacies.


If you do get diarrhea, it is best to let it run its course while staying hydrated with clear soups, lemon tea, a Gatorade-type drink and soda that has gone flat. Bananas are also a good source of potassium and help stop diarrhea. Coconut milk can also prove an effective remedy. You can make a rehydration fluid by mixing a half-teaspoon of salt and four tablespoons of sugar to a liter of boiled or purified water. If you need to travel and can’t afford to let the illness run its course, any pharmacy will give you something that will make you comfortable enough for a bus trip. If the diarrhea persists for more than five days, see a doctor.






As in many parts of the world, AIDS infections are increasing. The virus, HIV, is transmitted through injection by unsterilized needles previously used by a HIV sufferer and, increasingly, via unprotected sex. Contrary to popular belief, HIV in Colombia is more commonly transmitted by heterosexuals rather than homosexuals. It is worth avoiding the likes of acupuncture and tattooing unless certain of the location’s hygiene standards and safety. You should always practice safe sex. The HIV infection does not always trigger an automatic illness and only can be confirmed by a blood test.



Although the risks of cholera in Colombia are small and vaccinations are generally not necessary for international travel, there are some precautionary measures that can be taken to avoid contracting this potentially fatal disease. As cholera is an intestinal disease contracted from contaminated food or water, it is advisable to undertake similar precautions to those relating to diarrhea. Cholera triggers vomiting and a watery, rice-textured diarrhea that can lead to severe dehydration. If you contract it seek immediate medical attention.



Dengue Fever

At times, Colombia experiences outbreaks of dengue fever, especially along the northern coast. Dengue fever is a mosquito-transmitted, viral infection that is most common in densely populated urban areas. The best prevention is avoiding insect bites (see “Don’t Get Bitten!”).The symptoms, which appear seven to 10 days after exposure, are similar to a severe flu: intense joint and muscle pains, fever, vomiting and headaches. Often a rash follows. There is no immediate cure for dengue fever and, as well as taking plenty of fluids and non-aspirin pain killer (acetaminophen or paracetamol), medical assistance should be sought in the unlikely eventuality that you contract the hemorrhagic form of the disease.




It is advisable to be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B. A vaccine covering both types is good for 10 years. Hepatitis A is typically passed through food; Hepatitis B, through dirty needles or sexual encounters. Avoid situations where you could be subject to being exposed. Needless to say, it is a good idea to stay away from any sort of questionable injection and to not get a piercing while traveling, especially at the popular outdoor markets.




Most doctors around the world will tell you that if you travel anywhere in Colombia, you must take pills to prevent malaria. This is not true, as there are parts of Colombia where malaria is not present. If you are only traveling above 2,500 meters (8,200 ft), where mosquitoes do not thrive, you do not need to take preventative medicine. However, if you plan to spend time along the eastern Llanos, Colombia’s coastline, inland river valleys or in Amazonia, it is a good idea to take the proper measures to prevent the disease.


To prevent getting bitten, see “Don’t Get Bitten!” You are advised to consult a physician prior to travel, as various malarial medicines are available. Depending on the type of medication you take, you will begin it a few days or a few weeks before entering a malarial area, and continue taking it two to six weeks after leaving. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to malaria and should be vigilant with their preventative regime.


Malaria is caused by a parasite. The general initial symptoms of malaria are high fever, shivering, sweats, headaches, body pains and possible diarrhea or vomiting. It can lead to death. If you are or were in a malaria area and start to have these symptoms, get to a medical facility quickly. Time is of the essence for successful treatment.



Pulmonary Edema

Associated with a rapid climb in altitude and a severe deterioration of altitude sickness, some people can suffer from the potentially fatal pulmonary edema. As well as those associated with altitude sickness, symptoms of pulmonary edema can be a persistent cough, bloody phlegm, wheezing, a sensation of drowning and blue or bruised lips. The illness can also trigger a loss of orientation and hallucinations. An assisted descent in altitude is essential to avoid the intensification of these conditions and possible death.




There are stray dogs throughout Colombia that are usually harmless. Avoid all dogs that are behaving strangely. Some home-owners train guard dogs to attack trespassers. On long hikes in rural areas, always carry a walking attack. In the Llanos and Amazonia regions ensure you are covered at night, especially on the feet, as some vampire bats can bite. In case you are bitten by a dog or a wild animal, clean the wound thoroughly and seek immediate medical consultation. If required, rabies vaccinations are readily available in most major cities. Try to identify the animal or its owner and inform the relevant authorities. If you are planning to visit particularly isolated areas or will be working in a field that involves contact with animals, it is advisable to consult a doctor about having the rabies vaccination prior to travel.




This is transmitted by infected food or drink. An oral capsule or injection should be taken before travel if you are planning to travel in Colombia or South America for an extended period of time (six months or more). The injection needs booster every three years.



Water Hazards

Before swimming in local waters you should always enquire about their safety. Be extremely careful about swimming in piranha or caribe infested rivers. Do not swim naked as some waters are populated by candirĂş fish that trace urine currents and can enter bodily orifices. When bathing, wear sandals as some tropical fish eject venom if trodden on.



Yellow Fever

There is a risk of this mosquito-borne disease, especially in the jungle. Talk to your doctor before taking the vaccine, as it is not recommended for people with certain allergies (including to eggs), pregnant women, children under nine months and other special cases. The vaccine lasts for 10 years and has minimal, if any, side effects. When vaccinated, you will be given a Certificate of Yellow Fever Vaccination that should be carried with you. Visits to some places in Colombia and South America may ask for it.

Info., Medical

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Colombia: Capitanejo Holidays and Fiestas, Colombia's Religions, Highlights, Safety, Capitanejo Services, Getting To and Away, When to Go, Holidays and Festivals, Pamplona Services and Safety in ChocĂł.

28 Sep 2011

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