Avoid Getting Sick When You Travel and What to Do If It Happens

January 24, 2017

It can be frightening if you become ill while you’re traveling in a foreign country. From finding equivalent over-the-counter medicines for minor aches and scrapes to locating medical assistance for more serious illness/injury, to relaying your symptoms to a non-English speaking doctor, travel sickness can be a daunting occurrence.

An acquaintance got sick while traveling in India.  She had a very difficult time to get the correct diagnosis.  Then she heard a local man in a coffee shop speaking English…overheard part of his conversation where it was mentioned that he was a doctor.  She pretty much accosted the poor man right on the spot.  Fortunately, he was compassionate, listened to her symptoms, knew right away what she was suffering from, and gave her the names of the medicines she needed to purchase.

“Do as we say….not as we do”- Learn From OUR Mistakes

The necessity of preventing travel sickness has been learned the hard way… through personal experience.  For instance:

  • In Mazatlan, Mexico, a friend ate chicken which had not been cooked thoroughly – the result, by way of an extremely upset stomach, was not pretty, or pleasant.

  • On this same trip, I went for a long walk along the beach, taking in the beauty of the brilliant sun dancing off the ocean….all without the protection of sunglasses.  The resulting excruciating headache was one like I had never experienced before (nor ever want to again!).  Attempts to find a doctor who could correctly diagnose the situation (I had burned my retinas), and prescribe a medication, was very difficult.  The Spanish-speaking ‘el medico’ couldn’t understand the severity of my situation, so I left with a recommendation to buy ‘aspirina’ at a nearby pharmacy.
  • In Honolulu, a friend and I fell asleep for a few hours on the beach our first day there.  Needless to say, until our burns subsided, the next few days weren’t very comfortable.  “Sunburn red” is not a good color on either of us :-).

“An ounce of prevention” – How to Avoid Getting Sick When Traveling

If you take the following 5 measures –  you can decrease your chances of suffering from a travel sickness in the first place.  Your best defense is a good offense….be prepared before you leave home.

1. Take a basic mini medicine chest with you from home.  This allows you to have the over-the-counter medications that you (and your body) are familiar with.  If you’ve ever tried to search a drug store overseas for something as simple as a Nasal Decongestant, Dramamine (for nausea/motion sickness), Neosporin (for small scrapes and rashes), Tylenol (for a headache), or Imodium (for diarrhea), but the package is not labelled in English, or worse yet, it is kept behind the pharmacy counter, it could be a bit of a crapshoot to get what you actually need for your travel sickness.  For your own travel safety, pack a bottle of each of these, together with any prescribed medications you are taking (in their original containers), plus Band-aids.

Pack a downsized version of your medicine cabinet

2. You can find additional help to deal with travel sickness, by downloading and using an app called MEDMap. This app can assist you with identifying a drug which is the equivalent of what you would use at home, and with finding the appropriate medicine based on your symptoms.  This app also provides you with emergency phone numbers in various countries, as well as the numbers of nearby pharmacies, and of the local American Embassy or Consulate.
3. Pack a high-SPF sunblock, and don’t spend hours lying on the beach or by the pool. Your skin glowing red and feeling like it’s on fire is NOT the way you want to spend any part of your vacation!  In addition, pack good quality sunglasses – whether you are going to the tropics or not.  In fact, take two pairs, in case you lose or break one pair.

Apply sunblock liberally!

4. Keep yourself well hydrated and get the rest you need.  Doing these two things alone will go a long way in keeping you healthy to start with, but also will aid in your recovery should you suffer from any travel sickness.
5. Beware tap water and ice cubes made from tap water.  Stick to bottled water, even to brush your teeth.  Montezuma is determined to get his revenge…and he will  This warning doesn’t apply in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and most western European countries, but it does apply in large portions of the world. This travel safety advice also applies to raw fruits (those with no removable peel) and vegetables that have been washed in tap water.  Salads are especially sketchy and should be avoided unless the components have been washed with bottled water.  Vegetables that have been boiled are your safest choice.  Also, be sure that any meat (particularly poultry and pork) that you are served is cooked well.

Seemingly innocent ice cubes can be dangerous

“The Best Laid Plans….” What to Do If You DO Get Sick When Traveling

You’ve done all you can to avoid getting sick but….wham-o…..something hits you like a brick wall and you feel awful!  Consider these 5 pointers that can help to alleviate some of the stress and discomfort if you do become ill while you’re far away from home.

1. You’ve taken vacation days from work for this holiday….and now you’re sick! Why not ‘call in sick’?  There’s no reason you should lose vacation days when you truly are sick.
2. Carry your health insurance card, and tuck an insurance claim form in with your passport….just in case. Additionally, complete the ‘Emergency Contact’ information in your passport.  This will make it easier for authorities to contact someone in the event of an emergency should you be unable to do so for yourself.
3. If you suffer from any travel sickness, contact the local American Embassy or Consulate.  The staff there will be able to provide you with a list of local doctors, hospitals, and other medical contacts.  If your illness is of a serious nature, they can assist you with getting medical attention and will contact family or friends on your behalf.
4. The names of local hospitals, doctors, and other medical care providers in foreign countries can be found through the U.S. Department of State website, or through major credit card companies.

Have the list on hand, just in case!

5. Consider becoming a member of IAMAT – International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers.  This will grant you access to their network of reputable English-speaking doctors as well as other excellent benefits.  You can sign up here:  https://www.iamat.org/index.cfm

Written by Emma Ghattas