Dealing with illnesses while traveling

During my most recent adventure I have fallen ill not once but twice and it has inspired me to write a post for fellow travelers about how to survive being sick while abroad. In this article I will try to provide some practical advice that anyone can follow to be more prepared for sickness while traveling. There actually is a lot you can do before your trip to make sure you are prepared for the unexpected illness. Like most things in life, failing to plan is the same as planing to fail.

Locate a doctor that speaks English before arriving
Often when you become sick abroad it happens suddenly and is almost always unexpected. There is nothing worse than googling “English speaking doctors” with a fever or the worlds worst case of diarrhea. When your sick; your tired, generally not as sharp, and usually a bit scared. To make things easier on yourself look up a few English speaking doctors before your arrive at your destination. When in doubt, you can usually find a list of English speaking doctors on the United States Embassy’s website in the country your visiting.

Seek care before your illness progresses to an unmanageable state
When you get sick while traveling it can be tempting to just “tough it out” but the reality is that if you do your putting yourself in unnecessary danger. Wether you have the flu, food poisoning, or have been stung by a jellyfish in the sea one way or another you need to deal with it. Often enough, if you seek care, get some professional advice and deal with your problem you can avoid bigger headaches down the line. A great option is the new video conferencing services like Teledoc that you can use to contact a US based doctor via telephone or video call. They won’t be able to provide prescription medication if your traveling outside the United States however they can listen to your symptoms and give you a better idea of how severe your problems are, provide some advice for how to treat your illness at home and what warning signs to watch out for that indicate the need for emergency medical treatment.

Take ownership over your treatment
You are responsible for your own health. Make sure you understand whats going on and don’t blindly take medications just because someone has told you to. Do some research and understand what you are putting in your body. There are different medications abroad that are not approved for usage in USA. It doesn’t mean these medications are bad but you should ask your doctor and/or pharmacist questions so you understand what the intended purpose of the medication is. Then you can make an educated decision on if you want to take it. It’s also never a bad idea to call your doctor or pharmacist back home to ask his/her opinion.

Pack a medical kit
Bring some basic medical supplies with you. In your kit you should at very minimum have the following:

  • Your prescription medications
  • Blister pads
  • Medical tape
  • Diarrhea medicine (Imodium or Pepto-Bismal)
  • Antacid
  • Talcum powder (Goldbond)
  • Antihistamine
  • Expectorant medication
  • Motion sickness medicine
  • Cough drops
  • Cough suppressant
  • Decongestant
  • Pain relief and fever medication (acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen)
  • Mild sleep aid (melatonin)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Insect repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Rubber gloves
  • Tourniquet
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Antibacterial ointment
  • Digital thermometer with fresh batteries
  • Blood pressure cuff (optional)
  • Rehydration salts
  • Antiseptic
  • Bandages
  • Qtips
  • Tweezers
  • Eye drops

The goal is to build a kit that you can use to treat a variety of everyday aliments that you may face. Make sure to replenish your supplies as you use them and in-between trips.

Worry about the costs later
A good friend once told me “If the difference between living and dying is $1000, tell me where to send the check”. The point is, if your really sick or injured and considering getting medical care but are afraid of the costs. Get the care you need and figure out how to pay for it later.

Its a good idea to carry medical insurance or travel insurance. Check with your insurance carrier and see if they cover medical costs abroad. Many insurance providers will cover emergency medical care at 100% while traveling abroad. In any case you will need to pay out of pocket and submit for reimbursement.

Keep a log
When you first realize your not feeling well start keeping a log so that if things get worse and you need to see a doctor you can accurately describe what is happening to you. Some important statistics to keep track of are symptoms or pain level, blood pressure, resting heart rate, body temperature and medication usage. You can record anything you think might be helpful or that you may want to later share with your doctor. It never hurts to have more information.

Tell someone your sick
A good way to ensure some security while sick is to tell a local friend that your sick and to set a time that you will check in to confirm your OK. This can be especially helpful if you have a high fever and are treating yourself at home. Just tell your friend “hey man i’m really sick, if you haven’t heard from me by 11:00am tomorrow please come looking for me”.

Stay hydrated
Keep hydrated and replace lost electrolytes. A normal adult should aim to drink 2 liters of water per day. If your sick, aim for 3 to make sure your giving your body everything it needs to operate properly. Depending on your illness you may be losing electrolytes so be sure to replace them. You can do this by drinking gatorade, sports drinks, ginger ale, putting some salt in your water or by using rehydration salts you purchase at the pharmacy. I also have included a simple recipe below for making your own electrolyte fluids in the event that you cannot find gatorade or sports drinks.

Rehydration Fluid Recipe
1 Liter boiled water (cooled down)
8 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 Teaspoon salt
Mix all ingredients together until dissolved and chill before serving.

Get some rest
It may sound obvious but if you fall sick during your travels make sure to get plenty of rest. Cancel your plans and stay in for a few days, your body will thank you. Aim to get 8-10 hours of sleep per night and it will seriously aid in the speed of your recovery.

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