It’s one of those things that every traveler worries about: getting sick while you’re abroad. And it’s true: There’s no way to put a positive spin on falling ill or getting injured when you’re far away from a familiar medical system and your personal support network.
While a little misery might come with the territory of getting sick abroad, having a game plan in place can make you feel much more in control should illness strike during your travels. Taking the following steps will empower you to get the care you need if you’re sick (no matter where in the world you are).
Do some legwork up front.
You’ve heard the phrase that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and this certainly holds true for wellness while abroad. Before leaving for an international trip, take the following actions to ensure that you’ll be in the best position possible should you fall ill during your travels:
- Confirm that your health insurance policy will cover you while abroad. Call your insurance company and ask them about their policies for international travel. Some insurance providers (including Medicaid) offer no or extremely restrictive coverage abroad, so it’s important to know what will and won’t be covered should you need medical care. In some cases, it might be worth it to purchase travel insurance. Read our travel insurance guide before deciding on the right course of action for you.
- Fill out the information page on the inside of your passport. Include your name, address, phone number, and emergency contact. Should you find yourself in a medical emergency, this will make it easier for authorities to identify you and get in touch with your family back home.
- Pack any medications that you take regularly. (If they’re prescription meds, be sure to bring along a copy of your prescription.) It’s also worth learning the names of the active ingredients in any medications you expect you might take (both prescription and over-the-counter)—this way you’ll be able to identify them in foreign pharmacies even if the brand isn’t the same.
- Get any necessary vaccines. A couple of months before your trip, ask your doctor which vaccines you might need for safe travel in your specific destination. Make sure you’re fully vaccinated before boarding a plane.
- Research the local medical system. Scope out a few possible doctors or clinics by connecting with expats and asking for recommendations, identifying accredited clinics and hospitals in the area in which you’re traveling, and/or contacting the U.S. Embassy or Consulate for a list of recommended medical facilities. This way, you’ll know exactly where to go should illness strike.
Know when to see a doctor.
The CDC recommends that you get yourself to a medical facility right away if you have any of the following symptoms or are in any of the following circumstances:
- Diarrhea combined with a high fever
- Bloody diarrhea
- Flu-like symptoms in an area where malaria is prevalent
- Being in a car accident or otherwise being seriously injured
- Getting bitten or scratched by an animal
Learn how to treat diarrhea.
Outside of the common cold, diarrhea is one of the most common health issues to plague travelers abroad. (Unusual food and unsafe drinking water are common causes of diarrheal episodes.) If you’re suffering from diarrhea but don’t think it’s severe enough to head to the doctor, take the following steps to help your body get well ASAP:
- Drink plenty of fluids—ideally water
- Consider using oral rehydration solutions, which you can purchase or concoct on your own
- Eat plain, easy-to-digest foods such as bananas, crackers, rice, and yogurt
- Get loads of rest
If your symptoms haven’t cleared up within a few days, it’s probably time to see a doctor.
Be your own advocate.
If you do spend time in a medical facility, it’s important that you be proactive about your own care. Help ensure that you receive effective treatment by taking the following actions:
- If possible, bring along an interpreter or advocate. If you’re severely ill, it’s going to be difficult to remember the details of your appointment—especially if they’re given to you in a language that you don’t know well. Having an interpreter or friend on hand is a great way to ensure that you accurately comprehend the diagnosis and plan of treatment presented to you. It may also be helpful to contact your primary care doctor at home to see if they have additional insight into your diagnosis or treatment plan.
- Contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate. They can get in touch with your friends or relatives back home and advise you on your best course of action if it looks like you’ll need to remain in the medical facility for an undetermined amount of time.
- Get in touch with your insurance company ASAP. If possible, confirm whether they’ll cover any prescriptions and procedures before agreeing to treatment. Although it’s highly likely you’ll need to go ahead and get the treatment anyway, it’s helpful to know whether you’ll be on the hook for any incurred fees.
Seek out helpers.
There’s nothing worse than getting sick while you’re alone in a foreign place far from home. But travelers tend to be a friendly crowd, and you’ll be surprised at people’s willingness to offer help—so long as you ask for it. For example, a sympathetic hotel or hostel receptionist might be willing to pick up food or prescriptions on your behalf. (In this case, a generous tip might help stack the deck in your favor.) If you’re staying in a hostel, ask if they have any private rooms open—they’ll probably be happy to accommodate you if it means the rest of their guests won’t be inconvenienced by your illness.
In many cases, getting sick abroad is just like getting sick at home: It isn’t fun, but it’ll pass—and you’ll get better faster if you take good care of your body. To that end, get plenty of sleep, eat healthy foods, and pump tons of liquids. Even though it sucks to be stuck inside when you’d been planning to explore an exotic locale, taking good care of yourself will ultimately help you get back on your feet quicker.
Schedule a follow-up appointment back home.
Once you’ve returned home, schedule a check-up with your primary care physician just to be sure that everything’s in working order and that you’ve fully recovered from your illness.
No one wants their romantic vacation to Fiji or their adventure-packed itinerary in Auckland (or anywhere else in the world) to be impacted by illness. But if you do get sick abroad, the best thing you can do is accept it and be proactive about getting the care you need. The world will still be there for you to explore as soon as you’re back on your feet.