Some basic planning and precautions can help keep you healthy and happy while traveling.
Where to Get Care
Emergencies Dial 911 toll free, and no coin required at a pay phone for emergency assistance. The Red Cross Rescue unit may be reached directly at 128 throughout the country (2221-5818 in San José). Tourism Care Medical Services has road and air paramedic and ambulance service throughout Costa Rica (2286-1818). Listings for private physicians are under Médicos in the yellow pages.
For non emergency care your first line of defense should be your own first aid kit. Second, you can turn to the local farmacia (pharmacy).
Drink the Water
Municipal water supplies in Costa Rica are excellent.
One of the reasons so much land is protected in parks and reserves is that Ticos recognize the importance of their watersheds. Water quality standards monitored and enforced by the AYA are similar to those followed in North America and Europe.
Water from rivers and streams is not safe to drink without purification. As nearly anywhere in the world, free running water contains parasites and bacterial pathogens (including giardia).
Downstream from San José and in the waters around Puntarenas pollution and contamination can be severe enough to make swimming unsafe in the rivers.
The ministry of health does occasionally shut down beaches due to high coliform bacteria counts (basically sewage in the water) even in supposedly pristine areas like Manuel Antonio National Park.
Red tides (algal blooms) are becoming more frequent as the ocean temperature rises and more fertilizer is carried out to sea in runoff. It’s generally not considered very dangerous but can cause rash, irritation and should not be ingested.
Amebic Meningoencephalitis is extremely uncommon but Costa Rica’s hot spring resorts are nearly perfect habitat for the ameba (Naegleria fowleri) that causes it. The CDC assumes that Naegleria is present in any warm fresh water and grows best up to 115°F (46°C) – precisely hot spring temperatures. The only mechanism of infection is when water containing the ameba enters the body through the nose. There is no cure. Once symptoms are seen it is 97% fatal.
Washing your hands is one of the most effective ways of preventing disease transmission whether you are traveling or not.
Common sense is your best defense against digestive ailments. Wash any fruits and vegetables (especially ones you don’t peel), don’t eat food from stands or restaurants unless it’s as hot or cold as it should be, and don’t change your diet dramatically overnight.
A separate travel insurance policy might be a good idea. Your normal health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid will not be accepted and will not pay for any care you need.
Costa Rica’s Social Security Institute offers medical and emergency dental coverage by the week. It is available by the week through Tico travel agents, ask for the Instituto Nacional de Seguros travelers insurance.
Many multinational companies offer policies that cover trip cancellation, lost baggage, medical costs, and emergency evacuation. For what you get this insurance is relatively expensive so shop around, get details from the providers, and read the policy carefully before purchasing.
Your ultimate medical resource must be your physician. We have provided some general information, and daily updates by qualified medical professionals are available on the CDC and WHO web sites.
No inoculations are currently (November 2015) required for travelers from North America to Costa Rica. However, you may want to consider a gamma globulin injection to boost your general immunity and defenses against hepatitis.
If you are from or have recently traveled to some regions of South America or Africa proof of inoculation against Yellow Fever may be required. It is not present in Costa Rica and they want to keep it that way.
Use repellent and wear long sleeves and pants at dawn and dusk. There are a couple of mosquito borne diseases in the tropics world wide and in Costa Rica which are very unpleasant – chikungunya and dengue fever.
Everyone should carry a basic first aid kit when traveling. Hikers, backpackers, campers, surfers and others who are likely to find themselves away from medical care should carry more extensive supplies.
A minimum kit includes pain relievers/fever reducers (Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen, or Aspirin) Imodium, band aids, tweezers, neosporin, tape, eye drops, insect repellent, sun screen. The benefits of having each of these items convenient should be apparent.