Staying Healthy Abroad (and What to do When You're Not)
Take it from me—medical incidents can and will happen when you’re traveling. There was the time I was mildly electrocuted in Burma. The countless times my friends have contracted dengue around the world. And, oh yeah, the time I was quarantined in Japan because of food poisoning on a plane.
Throughout these adventures, my friends and I have been through many fine (and, admittedly, some not so fine) medical institutions, and despite our initial trepidation, we’ve all come out OK.
And if a mystery meat or a bug bite gets the best of you during a trip—you will, too. But a big part of that is knowing—before you go—how to stay healthy when you travel, and what to do in the case of a medical mishap.
Prepare for Anything
It’s easy to get freaked out by the worst-case scenarios outlined in your travel guidebooks—but don’t be. A few precautionary steps will prepare you in case something happens on your trip.
First, make absolute sure you get all the vaccines required for the country you’re visiting, and read up on the diseases that are prevalent in the region. Common illnesses you might encounter abroad include dengue, E. coli infection, leptospirosis (in the developing world), and malaria. It’s likely you would only be exposed to these in more rural areas, but it’s still good to be familiar with the symptoms.
Next, plan to secure reputable travelers’ health insurance that will cover both medical and flight expenses. This isn’t something you want to skimp on—go for the full package. For business trips or riskier destinations, try SOS International, and for backpacking and vacations, I recommend World Nomads. Both companies have an excellent track record of handling emergencies professionally.
Train Your Body
Ready to hit Machu Picchu? Or climb the Great Wall? It’s not going to be as easy or fun if you aren’t ready for drastic changes in your elevation and diet. Travelers most often get sick upon arrival because of sudden changes in food and environment.
I recommend starting an exercise regimen at least one month before you go to build up your endurance. Also increase your water intake once you get there—often people fall ill simply because they’re not used to the physical exertion in weather warmer or cooler than where they’ve come from, or aren’t drinking enough water for the climate.
You’ll also want to slowly transition into the cuisine of the region you’re visiting (especially if it’s spicy). Try starting before you go by slightly modifying your diet to incorporate the food of your destination.
Be Smart About Food and Drink
When they first traveled to India, my friends ended up doubled over because of E. coli (by some miracle, I’ve survived unscathed!), but there are a few tricks you can use to avoid that fate and help you stay healthy.
First, eat in restaurants that serve local home cooking (make sure it’s hot) as opposed to some of the more touristy restaurants. You will find home cooking a bit simpler to digest, as opposed to a lot of the cream and oil bases in the tourist locales. Then, slowly get more complex with your meals: For instance, in India, I start out eating dal and rice, and then transition to some of the heavier, spicier meals later in the trip.
You might also hear that you shouldn’t eat the street food. But if you follow that advice, you’ll completely miss out! In Thailand and Vietnam, I eat on the street all the time (though, in India, I’m more cautious because street food is always cooked with unfiltered water). Stick to the vendors that are popular with the locals, or where both locals and foreigners are eating.
But while I encourage eating street food, I will say to be careful of the local water, which can carry unusual bacteria, even if it’s bottled. In some countries, vendors have been known to refill opened bottles with tap water and resell them—so make sure that the seal on your water bottle is intact.
Pack or Plan for Medication
Despite your best planning, you should know what you need to do if you do get sick. The good news is, pharmacies around the world are very different than those in the U.S.—you can go to most any pharmacy at a mall or store, and get what you need without having a prescription. You can explain your symptoms to a pharmacist (many speak English, but you can always get a translator) if you have a common cold or stomach upset, or you can opt to purchase the medicine after you see a doctor. In some developing places, like Central Africa, you might want to pack your own meds (and always bring your own if you have a specific medical condition), but you’ll be surprised at how easily accessible brand name medicine is throughout Europe, Asia, and South America.
At the same time, always make sure you go to a legitimate pharmacy—shopping malls usually have good ones. Always look for major brand names you know (like Bayer, Novartis, Pfizer, and Aventis, which have pharmaceutical companies around the world) and always pay close attention to the packaging and seals to make sure there is no damage or tears. And no matter what you do, never buy medication at night markets or from street vendors.
When You Need Urgent Care
In most countries, if you need to see a doctor, you’ll go straight to the hospital or clinic, rather than making an appointment at a physician’s office. Depending on the urgency of your situation and the kind of care you need, you can choose to go to an international hospital or a local one. At local hospitals, while the care may be good (and likely cheaper), language differences may be a barrier, making it more of a challenge to get the correct diagnosis. And some really rural local hospitals can be quite alarming. (I remember one near the tourist areas in India that had monkeys running around out front and hopping inside the windows.)
Your best bet is to get in touch with local expats for their recommendations. Make sure the place you choose is clean, and trust your instincts—even if you’re in a new country, you’ll probably know in your gut what is right for a hospital.
Recovery: Stay or Head Back Home?
If you have a mild illness, I would say to stay in the country and see if you can rest and recover where you are. Long-term expats who get sick typically end up staying to receive medical care and recover just fine. But if you happen to get sick for an extended period of time, don’t hesitate to call your insurance company and arrange for travel home once you’re well enough.
When you get home from a trip abroad, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor for a full blood workup to ensure you’re not carrying anything unseen. And be prepared for reverse stomach upset when you return to your typical diet!
Also remember to take note of what you did that kept you healthy during your time abroad (and what might not have helped). Did yogurt or coconut water calm your upset stomach? Did a local tea soothe your sore throat? Keep those remedies in mind to use for future trips.
As I travel across the world, I’ve learned that things don’t always go as planned, and when it comes to health and wellness, you have to prepare for the unexpected. But, by being ready to address whatever situation comes your way, you’ll never have to travel in fear.
Photo courtesy of Oleg Sidorenko.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author