Before you go, you should seek advice from a doctor to get the proper vaccinations - these will depend on your medical history, and the areas of the country which you plan to visit. If you can, visit your doctor at least four to eight weeks before your departure since most vaccines need time to take effect and some require several doses.
If your country doesn't require you to be vaccinated before entering Panama, you should still seek out information about vaccines that could help keep you healthy while in the country, such as vaccines against hepatitis A and B.
Typhoid vaccination is also recommended to all travelers. Typhoid fever is caused by ingestion of contaminated food or water, so you should get this vaccine unless you expect to have all your meals in big hotels or restaurants and stay within big cities.
Yellow fever is present in some areas of Panama: East Panama (for instance in Chep, Chiman and Balboa), Darién, Comarca Emberá and Kuna Yala.
Some areas of Panama – like Bocas del Toro, Colón, Darién or Veraguas – present a substantial risk of malaria infection. The first precaution against this infection is mosquito repellent to reduce the chance of bites, and long-sleeved clothes. You can also take a vaccine against malaria before leaving for Panama. It's also a good idea to take malaria medication with you. Keep in mind that if you are going to move to Panama for a significant period, you cannot take malaria pills every day, and the vaccine is not effective after a while.
The rabies vaccine is highly recommended for expatriates and children who plan to spend a lot of time outdoors (which is generally the case in Panama). In Panama, rabies is transmitted mainly by vampire bats.
Tetanus-diphtheria vaccine is also recommended for all travelers who have not received it within the last 10 years.
Dengue fever is quite common in Panama, especially in the wet season (May to November). Like malaria, it’s transmitted by a mosquito. The symptoms are very similar to the flu (fever, headaches, joint pains, muscle aches and sometimes vomiting). There is no vaccine or pill to prevent dengue fever. Therefore, if you suffer from flu-like symptom while living in Panama, it is highly recommended that you go see a doctor and never take aspirins (risk of death by internal bleeding).
Medicines to take when you move
Even though basic medicines are available in local pharmacies, you should have a small emergency kit. This way, if you are learning Spanish, or don't know where your local pharmacy is, you can still take care of the more common ailments. Your emergency kit should include:
- Paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen) or ibuprofen – To be used in case of fever. Try to avoid aspirin, as in dengue fever cases, it could be deadly.
- Anti-diarrheal medication – In your first few months you may have trouble adapting to the food or water.
- Antiseptic solutions for cuts and abrasions – The risk of infection can be high, so you want to be sure that cuts are immediately taken care of.
- Insect repellent for the skin and insect spray for clothes -This helps keep the malaria and dengue mosquitoes at bay.
- Sun block – The sun in Panama is strong. Be prepared, or face risking serious sunburns.
Food and water precautions
Tap water in Panama City is safe to drink. In the rest of the country, you should drink only bottled or boiled water and avoid ice cubes. Avoid eating food purchased from street vendors or unpasteurized milk products and always make sure your food is fully cooked. And of course, wash your hands as often as you can.
Prevent insect and animal bites
As malaria and dengue are caused by mosquito bites, to prevent them, wear long pants and long sleeves, especially in areas where these diseases are prevalent. In rural and forest areas, boots are highly recommended, with pants tucked in, to prevent tick bites.
For additional protection, you should use an insect repellent on your clothes and you skin. In addition, make sure that your home is equipped with electric diffusers, a mosquito coil and a bed net.
As itchy and painful as it is, you should not scratch insect bites. The secondary infections resulting from scratching may be more of a problem than the bites themselves.
Do not attempt to touch or feed any animals (including dogs and cats) to avoid diseases like rabies or serious injury. Any bite or scratch by a mammal (including bats) must be cleaned well with a lot of soap and water, and sprayed with antiseptic such as alcohol to avoid any infection. In addition, a visit to a doctor is essential. Supervise young children carefully when around animals, to avoid any bites.
Also remember that Panama has snakes, some of them poisonous. In forest areas, where most snakes are, boots are the best prevention against snakebites.